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Opinion | I Hope to Repeal an Arcane Law That Could Be Misused to Ban Abortion Nationwide


A long discredited, arcane 150-year-old law is back in the news in 2024, and that should terrify anyone who supports reproductive freedom. Last week at the Supreme Court, the Comstock Act of 1873 was referenced on three separate occasions during oral arguments in a case dealing with access to mifepristone, one of two drugs typically used in medication abortions.

Anti-abortion activists like to bring up the Comstock Act because one of its clauses prohibits sending through the mail “every article, instrument, substance, drug, medicine or thing” that could possibly lead to an abortion. Even if the Supreme Court doesn’t take the bait, a newly re-elected President Trump could order his Department of Justice to start interpreting that line to mean that it is illegal to mail mifepristone — a safe, effective, Food and Drug Administration-approved drug — to doctors and pharmacies, as well as to patients directly. The same could go for medical supplies that are used in performing surgical abortions. That could effectively make abortion impossible to access even in places like Minnesota, which has affirmatively protected a woman’s right to choose by passing reproductive freedom laws.

In response, I’m prepared to fight back — including by introducing legislation to take away the Comstock Act as a tool to limit reproductive freedom.

Let me take a step back and explain how ridiculous it is that we’re even talking about this legislative relic today. The Comstock Act hasn’t been broadly enforced since the 1930s. The Biden administration considers it utterly irrelevant. Many legal experts consider it dead letter law. And once you know its back story, it becomes clear why no one has paid much attention to it in nearly a century.

Back in the 1860s, a former Civil War soldier from rural Connecticut named Anthony Comstock moved to New York City for work. He was shocked and appalled by what he found. Advertisements for contraception! Open discussions of sexual health! It all struck Comstock as terribly lewd and anti-Christian.

So he made it his mission to clean up society, creating the loftily named New York Society for the Suppression of Vice and gathering evidence for police raids on places that distributed material he thought was obscene or promoted indecent living. In the early 1870s he took his crusade to Washington, lobbying for federal legislation that would empower the post office to search for and seize anything in the mail that met Comstock’s criteria for being “obscene,” “lewd” or just plain “filthy.” Morality, as determined by Comstock, would be the law of the land, and Comstock himself would be its enforcer, appointed by Congress as a special agent of the post office.

In a fit of Victorian puritanism, Congress passed the Comstock Act into law. But it quickly became apparent that Comstock’s criteria were unworkably vague. In its broad wording, the law not only made it illegal to send pornography through the mail, it also outlawed the sending of medical textbooks for their depictions of the human body, personal love letters that hinted at physical as well as romantic relationships, and even news stories.

The whole thing was very silly and impracticable, and that’s why the Comstock Act was relegated to the dustbin of history.

But conservative activists recently revived it from obscurity as part of their playbook for a potential second Trump term: The 887-page plan nicknamed Project 2025 being promoted by groups like the Heritage Foundation explicitly calls for a newly elected second-term President Trump to use this zombie law to severely ratchet back abortion access in America without congressional action.

Legislation to repeal Comstock could take many forms, and we need to do it the right way. That’s why I’ve begun reaching out to my colleagues in the House of Representatives and the Senate to build support and see what legislation to repeal the Comstock Act might look like. Anti-abortion extremists will continue to exploit any avenue they can find to get the national ban they champion, and I want to make sure my bill shuts down every one of those avenues. Once the Supreme Court has had its say (and many legal analysts speculate that the mifepristone case heard last week should be thrown out on procedural grounds, and may well be), I’ll be ready to have mine.

Here’s the bottom line: We can’t let anyone — not the Supreme Court, not Donald Trump and certainly not a random busybody from the 19th century — take away Americans’ right to access medication abortion. We must protect the ability of doctors, pharmacies and patients to receive in the mail the supplies they need to exercise their right to reproductive care.

As the only former Planned Parenthood executive serving in the Senate, I feel I have a special responsibility to protect not just abortion rights but also abortion access.

Very few Republicans will admit to wanting to see a total, no-exceptions ban on abortion in all 50 states, but the Comstock Act could allow them to achieve that in effect, if not in so many words.

Americans deserve better. The Constitution demands better. And common sense dictates that we stop this outrageous backdoor ploy to eliminate abortion access in its tracks.



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