June 3, 2023

The group emphasizes on its website that the law provides for “criminal penalties” of up to five years in prison for a first offense. “The law still means what it says: Items that cause abortion may not be sent in the mail,” the group’s website says. “Congress has had the opportunity to change that in the past. It didn’t.’

In the 1870s, Mr. Comstock himself became the chief enforcer, designated by Congress as a post office special agent to make arrests for mailing everything from art photographs and pamphlets about sex education to methods of contraception. At the end of his career, Mr. Comstock said he helped convict enough people to fill a 61-carriage passenger train.

The last time the law was changed, in 1996, Patricia Schroeder, then a Democratic representative from Colorado, fought to have the provision about sending abortion materials removed, but the attempt failed. “Comstockery has been given new life by this Congress,” Ms. Schroeder, who died in March, mourned in a floor speech at the time.

Barney Frank, a Democrat from Massachusetts, 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 of Representatives in 1996, said then and now “both sides face the challenge of not being the extremist” on abortion. He distinguished between restricting the Comstock Act and repealing it completely, saying that repeal “would be a different kind of fight”.

But Mr. Frank thinks politics have changed and the Comstock Act itself is out of the mainstream. “Abortion was then seen as a terrible problem for the left,” he said of the 1990s. “But now the situation is reversed. Let’s see if the Republicans really want to abide by these extremely old laws.”