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In the early twentieth century, a mother fought for the right to distribute sex education through the mail. Now, the same law that deemed her ‘obscene’ could decide women’s future access to abortion.
(Illustration by Pablo Delcan for The Free Press; image courtesy of Sharon Spaulding, Dennett Family Archive)

The Prophets: Mary Ware Dennett

In the early 1900s, a mother fought to distribute sex education through the mail. The law that deemed her ‘obscene’ could deny women’s access to abortion today.

Welcome back to The Prophets, our Saturday series about fascinating people from the past who foresaw our current moment. Last week, Joe Nocera featured epidemiologist D.A. Henderson, who predicted years before Covid that a public health disaster would result from harsh lockdown policies. Today, Emily Yoffe writes about Mary Ware Dennett, a woman born in 1872 who fought a government ban that has far-reaching consequences for women’s future reproductive rights.

Mary Ware Dennett was an innovative suffrage organizer, and a pioneering birth control advocate and sex educator. She fought for legal autonomy for women and for the sexual fulfillment of all. Born in the Victorian era, she died in the Atomic Age, and although she is almost unknown today, she helped modernize American attitudes about our right to knowledge and medical care for the most intimate parts of life. 

At the end of her career, she was also convicted by the federal government for the criminal act of sending “obscene” material through the mail in a case that became a legal landmark.

During her years fighting for access to birth control information, she believed that most Americans supported its availability and only a small number of zealots wanted to see it banned. She wrote, “These people are relatively few. Yet they have a persistent influence on the majority who do not hold such views,” arguing that the larger proportion of society is bullied into silence. 

Now, a century later, a remarkable number of her struggles are mirrored in our current battles over reproductive rights. Today there are doctors who are afraid of being prosecuted for providing medical services, or even information, about abortion—despite, in some cases, a woman’s life hanging in the balance. Poor women are unable to access the kind of care available to the rich, or are forced to leave their state to get it. The majority of people in this country favor access to abortion, with some reasonable limits—but those with extreme anti-abortion views have outsize power in the debate. 

And uncannily, the U.S. Supreme Court is hearing oral arguments this Tuesday on whether a long-approved two-pill regimen that induces early abortion can be legally sent through the mail directly to patients. To prevent this direct access, today’s anti-abortion advocates are dusting off the moribund nineteenth-century obscenity laws once used to prosecute Mary Ware Dennett for sending her sex education pamphlet through the mail. 

Known under the 1873 umbrella statute as the Comstock Act, these laws essentially made it illegal for many decades for Americans to access birth control information and devices. Violators faced felony charges and years in prison for any transgression.

In March 1915, Mary, then a 42-year-old divorced mother of two sons, co-founded America’s first birth control advocacy group, the National Birth Control League. It had a simple but radical agenda: control of reproduction should be made directly accessible to the couple involved. In a speech at the founding meeting, Mary declared that “information about birth control should be freely available.” 

The organization’s statement of purpose declared, “Whether or not, and when, a woman should have a child is not a question for physicians to decide—except when the woman’s life is endangered—or for the clergy or the state legislators to decide, but a question for the individual family concerned to decide.” Its motto was, “The first right a child should have is that of being wanted.” 

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