The Spark

the Voice of
The Communist League of Revolutionary Workers–Internationalist

“The emancipation of the working class will only be achieved by the working class itself.”
— Karl Marx

Abortion, Comstock, and Capitalism

May 15, 2023

A law from 1873 called the Comstock Law was used by a Texas judge last month to justify a ban on mailing the abortion pill mifepristone, also called RU-486. The Supreme Court temporarily allowed the drug to be mailed while a lawsuit goes on. But who was Comstock? How did he get this law passed 150 years ago, which puts limits on how women decide to run their lives?

Most accounts repeat the fable that Anthony Comstock went on a prudish one-man campaign to Washington to convince senators and congressmen to outlaw the mailing of printed material about sex. But, contrary to the fable, he had personal connections with men of enormous industrial and banking fortunes. Men like John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan, Samuel Colgate, the treasurer of the New York Stock Exchange, and other leading capitalists.

These captains of industry bankrolled Comstock. These wealthy men had an interest in controlling women’s lives as part of their control over the working class. They paved the way for Comstock, connecting him with politicians like the vice-president of the U.S., a U.S. Supreme Court justice who co-wrote his law, and a congressman from New York who sponsored it. They had an interest in trying to force backward ideas on a rapidly changing, industrializing society after the Civil War.

These wealthy men and their politicians had the U.S. Post Office appoint Comstock as a special agent with powers of arrest and seizure on all mail lines. But he refused a federal salary. Instead the YMCA paid his salary with money from his capitalist friends.

Comstock arrested more than 3,000 people. He burned millions of books, newspapers, magazines, prints, photographs, and circulars. These dealt with atheism and homosexuality as well as contraception and abortion—which was widely practiced, then as now.

Not one man or one male judge—no matter how rich or connected—should be able to make decisions that affect the lives of millions of women.