Contraceptive Comstockery: Reasoning from Immorality to Illness in the Twenty-First Century

54 Pages Posted: 9 Jun 2015 Last revised: 9 Jul 2015

See all articles by Priscilla J. Smith

Priscilla J. Smith

Yale Law School - Information Society Project

Date Written: June 8, 2015


This Article interrogates two critiques of hormonal contraceptives to reveal that both critiques are animated by moral arguments against all non-procreative sex dressed up in faulty scientific reasoning. The two arguments are: (1) that contraceptives are bad for women’s health, and (2) that many hormonal contraceptives are actually abortifacients that terminate pregnancy because, it is argued, they could prevent a fertilized egg from implanting into a woman’s uterine lining. These claims circulated in anticipation of challenges to the contraceptive coverage requirement in the Affordable Care Act and were submitted before the Supreme Court in the Hobby Lobby litigation in the form of an amicus brief filed on behalf of a group called “Women Speak for Themselves.” Although these claims garnered significant attention recently during the Hobby Lobby litigation, in fact, the claims that contraceptives are bad for health and are morally equivalent to abortion have a long pedigree.

In fact, the modern claims that “contraception harms women” and “contraception is abortion” are modes of reasoning consciously modeled on the claims of nineteenth century anti-contraception crusaders. These Comstock crusaders believed that illicit sexual acts, including non-procreative sex facilitated by contraception, were immoral and this immorality was the cause of illness and harm to women. These beliefs undergirded the federal Comstock Act, which banned the distribution of contraception and information regarding contraception, as well as state-level mini-Comstock laws in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Today, however, considerable social acceptance of sex for pleasure (at least for some people in some circumstances) means that straightforward arguments against contraception based on its immorality do not resonate as successfully as they once did. Anti-contraceptive advocates can no longer rely on the tacit agreement that contraception leads to illicit sex, loose women, and over-stimulated young men. Social conservatives have publicly acknowledged as much, expressing an anxiety about the position of religion as “belief” rather than “truth,” and about a rise in what they call “sexualityism.” As a result, in reviving the message of their nineteenth century counterparts, modern opponents of contraception consciously chose to deemphasize moral arguments in favor of claims that contraception is bad for women’s health, relying on scientific claims that fall apart upon examination.

Suggested Citation

Smith, Priscilla, Contraceptive Comstockery: Reasoning from Immorality to Illness in the Twenty-First Century (June 8, 2015). 47 Conn. L. Rev. 971 (2015), Available at SSRN:

Priscilla Smith (Contact Author)

Yale Law School - Information Society Project ( email )

Yale Law School
New Haven, CT

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