Birth Control Battles: The Theocrats’ Long War On Contraceptive Access

Yesterday marked the 51st anniversary of Griswold v. Connecticut, a landmark Supreme Court decision that broadened access to contraception. In a 7-2 decision, the nation’s highest court found that the Connecticut Comstock Act of 1879, which banned contraceptives, violated the Fourteenth Amendment right to privacy.

Griswold unquestionably advanced women’s rights, but religious freedom advocates should also consider it an important victory. Connecticut’s birth control ban had deep roots in fundamentalist opposition to contraception and abortion rights. Look no further than its namesake for evidence.

Born in 1844 to a Congregationalist mother, Anthony Comstock spent most of his adult life lobbying for restrictions on contraception, abortion and books that he considered to be pornographic. He didn’t have to work particularly hard to convince elected officials to promote his agenda; reverberations from the Second Great Awakening still gripped the country at the time. Congress passed laws banning the distribution of contraceptive materials, and of erotic material, as a direct result of his tireless lobbying.

These laws were broadly written, granting judges significant freedom to decide which materials should be categorized as “immoral” and banned. Some novels we consider classics today fell to Comstock’s crusade.

Some Comstock critics thought he had too much power. In 1915, Harper’s Weekly journalist Mary Alden Hopkins asked Comstock a pointed question. “Does it [the anti-pornography law] not allow the judge considerable leeway in deciding whether or not a book or a picture, is immoral?” she queried.

“No,” he replied. “The highest courts in Great Britain and the United States have laid down the test in all such matters. What he has to decide is whether or not it might arouse in young and inexperienced minds, lewd or libidinous thoughts.”

Future courts, of course, disagreed.

Comstock didn’t restrict himself to banning thought crime. He considered his war on contraception and abortion to be part of the same religiously-motivated struggle, and he said as much to Hopkins.

“The prevention of conception would work the greatest demoralization. God has set certain natural barriers. If you turn loose the passions and break down the fear you bring…disaster,” he told her.

A century later, Comstock’s “disaster” is here. The Supreme Court’s finding in Griswold initially applied only to married couples. The justices expanded it in 1972’s Eisenstadt v. Baird, which established that unmarried couples also had a privacy right to freely purchase contraception. A year later, justices used the same principle to legalize abortion in Roe v. Wade.  In 1969, the court ruled in Stanley v. Georgia that the same right to privacy guaranteed a right to consume certain forms of sexually charged material in private.

But legal contraception, abortion and risqué tomes didn’t create anarchy. Instead, Comstock’s “disaster” led to women entering higher education and professional fields in unprecedented numbers. 



Contraception access has hardly been a disaster for women. Instead, it's helped them go to college. 

There’s clear evidence now that women benefited from increased access to contraception. In a 2013 working paper, University of Michigan economist Martha Bailey traced recent economic gains by women to Griswold and subsequent court decisions that affirmed a right to contraception and abortion. That’s progress – unless you’re a reanimated Anthony Comstock or one of his contemporary advocates.

Though his views are extreme even by the standards of many in the Religious Right, Comstock’s still a hero to some.

Allan Carlson, who founded the Howard Center for Family, Religion and Society and launched the World Congress of Families, called the man a “pure visionary” in a 2009 piece for Touchstone magazine. (Carlson also opposes a legal right to contraception and abortion.) Comstock is even the star of his own Christian movie: “Anthony Comstock: Fighter.”

Opposition to contraception also motivates Religious Right activists who wouldn’t necessarily cite Comstock as a direct influence: Some religious universities and groups are currently litigating to demand a religious freedom right to block student and employee access to seamless insurance coverage for contraception.

The Griswold case is long over, but the war on access to contraception – and real religious freedom – continues.