Commentary A Comstock Speaks: Why I Support Planned Parenthood

A Comstock Speaks: Why I Support Planned Parenthood

Karen Comstock

I support Planned Parenthood for the same reasons millions of other people do, but I have another, more unique, reason for supporting Planned Parenthood. I have a remote connection to its origin: Anthony Comstock was a distant relative of mine.

I support Planned Parenthood for the same reasons millions of other people do. I believe that all women should have access to quality reproductive health care, and that every child should be a wanted child. And, like many, I have been a recipient of the professional, caring services that Planned Parenthood provides. When I was much younger and living in New York City, I turned to Planned Parenthood when I chose to terminate an unplanned pregnancy. I was relatively lucky, as the circumstances of my pregnancy were not traumatic and I had a strong support group. Still, I was unexpectedly touched by the compassionate care I received. The Manhattan Planned Parenthood office was, as you can imagine, an extremely hectic place. Yet the attending nurse made me feel as if I was her only concern. As she led me into the operating room, she gently held my hand. That one small gesture meant the world to me. At that moment, I knew that she, and the entire organization, was totally on my side. That was 23 years ago, and I remember it as if it happened yesterday.

And, I have another, more unique, reason for supporting Planned Parenthood. I have a remote connection to its origin. The driving force behind the original anti-birth control statutes was a distant relative of mine, a New Yorker named Anthony Comstock.  Founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice, in 1873 Comstock persuaded Congress to pass an anti-obscenity bill, including a ban on contraceptives, that he had drafted himself. Known as the Comstock Act, the statute defined contraceptives as obscene and illicit, making it a federal offense to disseminate birth control through the mail or across state lines. Soon after, 24 states enacted their own versions of Comstock laws to restrict the contraceptive trade on a state level. A savvy political insider in New York City, Comstock was made a special agent of the United States Postal Service, with police powers up to and including the right to carry a weapon. With this power he zealously prosecuted those he suspected of public distribution of pornography.  At one point, even some anatomy textbooks were prohibited from being sent to medical students by the U.S. Postal Service. 

These laws remained unchallenged until Margaret Sanger made it her mission to fight the Comstock Act.  She was arrested in 1916 for opening the first “birth control” clinic (a term she coined).  In 1921, Sanger founded the American Birth Control League, which, as we know, later became the Planned Parenthood Federation of America. The continuing activism of Sanger and other women’s rights supporters contributed to the landmark 1965 U.S. Supreme Court decision Griswold v. Connecticut, which legalized contraception in the United States.

I know I am not responsible for the Anthony Comstock’s actions. After all, he died more than 40 years before I was born. But because I share a name with the man who inspired George Bernard Shaw’s term “Comstockery” (meaning “censorship because of perceived obscenity or immorality”), I feel a certain obligation to try to right past wrongs. My partner and I donate what we can each year, and I have named Planned Parenthood of the Southern Finger Lakes as a beneficiary in my will. This Comstock is 100 percent behind Planned Parenthood.    

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