The group emphasizes on its website that the act provides for “criminal penalties” up to five years in prison for a first offense. “The law still means what it says — abortion-causing items are not to be mailed,” the group’s website says. “Congress has had the option to change that in the past. It didn’t.”
In the 1870s, Mr. Comstock himself became its chief enforcer, designated by Congress as a special agent of the Post Office to make arrests for sending anything from art photographs and sex-education pamphlets to birth control methods. At the end of his career, Mr. Comstock said he had helped convict enough people to fill a 61-coach passenger train.
The last time the act was amended, in 1996, Patricia Schroeder, then a Democratic representative from Colorado, fought to remove the provision about mailing abortion materials, but the effort fell short. “Comstockery has been given a new lease on life by this Congress,” Ms. Schroeder, who died in March, mourned at the time in a floor speech.
Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, was involved in the 1996 effort. The repeal failed, he said in a recent interview, because at the time, “abortion was overwhelmingly unpopular among Republicans and also seen as a wedge issue that could be used against Democrats.”
Newt Gingrich, the Republican Speaker of the House in 1996, said that then and now, “both parties face the challenge of avoiding being the extremist” on abortion. He distinguished between narrowing the Comstock Act and repealing it entirely, saying repeal “would be a different kind of fight.”
But Mr. Frank thinks the politics have changed and the Comstock Act itself is outside the mainstream. “Then abortion was seen as a terrible issue for the left,” he said of the 1990s. “But now the situation is reversed. Let’s see if the Republicans really want to stick with this kind of extreme old law.”