Mary Coffin Ware Dennett advocated for social reform in the United States in the early twentieth century, particularly regarding sex education and women's rights to access contraception. Dennett authored several publications on sex education and birth control laws. She also worked to repeal the Comstock Act, a federal law that made it illegal to distribute obscene materials through the US Postal Services. During the early 1900s, Dennett distributed a pamphlet she wrote on sex education called, The Sex Side of Life, through the post, which triggered a series of legal challenges that contributed to the dismantling of the Comstock Act. Dennett was an advocate for sex education and contraceptives, and her actions helped increase women's access to information about reproductive health.
In 1901, the Arizona Territorial Legislature codified territorial law that illegalized advertising, causing, or performing abortions anywhere in Arizona. The 1901 code, in conjunction with the federal Comstock Act, regulated the advertisement and accessibility of abortion services and contraceptives in Arizona. The Federal Comstock Act of 1873 had illegalized the distribution of material on contraceptives and abortions through the US Postal Services by labeling contraceptive and abortive material as obscene. After the passage of that federal law, many states and territories, including Arizona, enacted or codified state or territory-level anti-obscenity laws to augment the federal law's effects. Those laws became called Comstock laws, and Arizona's 1901 laws was its Comstock law. The Arizona Comstock law hindered Arizona women's access to abortion services until the mid twentieth century, when state and federal court decisions dismantled Comstock laws nationwide.
In the 1930 US federal court case United States v. Dennett, Mary Coffin Ware Dennett was cleared of all charges of violating the anti-obscenity Comstock Act, a charge she had incurred by distributing her sex education pamphlet called The Sex Side of Life: An Explanation for Young People. The United States Postal Service charged Dennett under the Comstock Act, which prohibited the distribution of sex-related materials through the mail. The US Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York City, New York, ruled that material needed to be considered in context and could not be considered obscene if it was not intended to sexually arouse an individual. The court's ruling in the appeals case of United States v. Dennett questioned the merits of the Hicklin test, used by courts to determine whether an item had an obscene component or intent, and contributed to the dissolution of the Comstock Act, thus legalizing access to materials about contraception and reproductive health.
In the 1936 case United States v. One Package of Japanese Pessaries, the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York City, New York, confirmed that physicians had the right to distribute contraceptives to patients for medical purposes. In January 1933, US Customs confiscated a package of contraceptives imported from Japan by US physician Hannah Stone. They claimed that the package violated section 305 of the Tariff Act of 1930, which, like the 1873 anti-obscenity Comstock Act, granted the US government authority to seize contraceptive materials imported into the country or sent through the mail. The court ruled that US Customs was not justified in confiscating the package and ordered its return to Stone. United States v. One Package exempted physicians from the restrictions surrounding the distribution of contraceptives and contributed to the subsequent dismantling of the Comstock Act in later court cases.
Anthony Comstock was a US postal inspector and politician who advocated for the suppression of obscenity and vice throughout the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century. Comstock considered any sexually explicit material like pornography and literature related to birth control and abortion as obscene. In 1873, Comstock lobbied US Congress to pass an anti-obscenity law titled An Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use, also called the Comstock Act. The law penalized individuals for sending material classified as obscene through the US postal services, which Comstock, as a special agent of the United States Post Office, could enforce. Comstock’s role in passing and enforcing the Comstock Act influenced the social and political restriction of birth control, hindering women’s access to contraceptives.
What Every Girl Should Know was published in 1916 in New York City, New York, as a compilation of articles written by Margaret Sanger from 1912 to 1913. The original articles appeared in the newspaper New York Call, under the tile “What Every Girl Should Know.” The articles, which are organized into chapters and individual parts in the book, describe sex education, human reproduction, and sexually transmitted infections. Sanger, a nurse and social activist, published What Every Girl Should Know during a time in which US federal and state obscenity laws regulated the circulation of literature related to sex. What Every Girl Should Know flouted those laws, helping people to learn about sex education and reproductive health in the US during the early twentieth century.
What Every Mother Should Know was published in 1914 in New York City, New York, as a compilation of newspaper articles written by Margaret Sanger in 1911. The series of articles informed parents about how to teach their children about reproduction and it appeared in the newspaper New York Call. In 1911, the newspaper series was published as a book, with several subsequent editions appearing later. In What Every Mother Should Know, Sanger emphasizes starting education on reproduction early and honestly answering children’s questions. The book acted as a resource for parents and urged readers to be less fearful of approaching the topic with their children. What Every Mother Should Know provided information to the public about sex education and reproductive health, which was scarce during the early twentieth century.
In 1918, the New York State Court of Appeals in Albany broadened the justification physicians could use to prescribe contraceptives to married patients in the case The People of the State of New York v. Margaret H. Sanger (People v. Sanger). The presiding judge of People v. Sanger, Frederick Crane, ruled that under Section 1145 of the New York Penal Code physicians could provide contraceptives to married couples for the prevention of disease. However, he supported a criminal conviction against birth control activist Margaret Sanger, who had distributed contraceptives, because she was not a physician. In his ruling, Crane broadened New York’s legal definition of disease to include any situation affecting the health of married people, increasing physicians’ ability to prescribe contraceptives in New York. The case also influenced the US Supreme Court when it legalized contraception for married couples in the mid twentieth century.