In 1873 a campaign by Anthony Comstock’s New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, led to a federal law (An Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use), that prohibited “selling through the mails or advertising of obscene literature and items ‘for the prevention of conception’.” The prompt for the campaign was the belief that contraception and abortion make “debauchery more attractive and freer of immediate consequences.” The campaign was successful at the state level as well: twenty-four states enacted laws that banned items for the prevention of conception, the so-called Comstock laws.
Supporters of these Comstock laws, and Comstock himself, seem to think of freedom as Montesquieu did: people should be free to do what is right; but (understood rightly) freedom doesn’t allow wrongdoing. And so, they thought that people should be free to do what is morally correct and that they are justifiably constrained by law to keep them from doing what is morally wrong.
The most restrictive of the Comstock laws were enacted in New England. In Massachusetts, anyone disseminating contraceptives —or information about contraceptives— faced stiff fines and imprisonment. Connecticut’s Comstock laws were by far the most restrictive: in Connecticut the use of birth control was prohibited by law. Married couples were subject to arrest for using birth control in the privacy of their own bedrooms, and faced a one-year prison sentence, if convicted.
Comstock laws impose limits on liberty. Connecticut’s Comstock law goes further than others in its limitation of the liberty of married couples. In general, and in particular with Connecticut’s Comstock law, the question whether such limitations are justifiable looms large.
Consider and discuss how that question about Connecticut’s Comstock law should be answered by those who embrace John Stuart Mill’s ideas about freedom and justifiable limits on liberty.
Do you think Connecticut’s Comstock law imposed justifiable limits on individual liberty?Explain your answer.
Shapiro, “From Comstockery to Helmsmanship,” The NationVol. 251, no. 10, Oct. 1, 1990, p. 336.
Connecticut and the Comstock Law,