Coded Silences and Open Secrets

In 1873, Congress responded to the anti-abortion campaigners and, in particular, the pressure exerted by Anthony Comstock—a postal inspector and founder of the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice—by passing an Act for the Suppression of Trade in, and Circulation of, Obscene Literature and Articles of Immoral Use. More commonly known as the Comstock Act, this legislation made it a crime to distribute material deemed “obscene, lewd, or lascivious” through the U.S. Postal Service. This included abortifacients and contraceptive devices, as well as information about how to obtain these items. The act threatened offenders with a fine of up to $5000 and a prison term of up to five years. Within this restrictive environment, manufacturers of abortifacients and others resorted to using strategic silences and coded language to communicate with their audiences.