The Postal Service can legally deliver abortion medications in the U.S.—including to states with abortion restrictions or bans—according to a Justice Department decision posted online late Jan. 3. The Postal Service requested that the Justice Department provide guidance on this issue a week after the Supreme Court's conservative majority voted to overturn the landmark Roe v. Wade decision in June 2022. That ruling, which sparked intense debate across the U.S., led to abortion restrictions and bans in many states.
In its decision, the Justice Department ruled that sending, delivering, and receiving abortion drugs by mail is not in violation of the 1873 Comstock Act —which aimed to prevent morally "corrupt" items from being delivered by mail—because there is no way to determine that the intent of the recipient is to commit an unlawful act. There are also no federal restrictions on the drugs in question.
Considering the fraught and deeply political ways in which abortion is discussed and legislated in the U.S. today, it's easy to forget the issue was not always a partisan, or even a moral, one. Rather, attitudes toward abortion have changed over the centuries, often evolving alongside political and historical moments that reflect shifts in power and privilege.
In Colonial times, abortion was not a matter of federal or ethical significance, but a common decision made and acted upon by pregnant people and their midwives. Two centuries later, abortions were outlawed in every state. The matter of who gets to make decisions about abortion—whether it be the federal government, state legislators, or individuals—has historically been tied up in changing philosophies about bodily autonomy, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow, the advent of the medical industry, and, eventually, the merging of religion and politics to form the party system we know today.
Stacker consulted historical records, scholarly research, court documents, medical journals, news reports, and data from the Guttmacher Institute, a reproductive rights research and advocacy organization to trace the history of attitudes and policies around abortion in the U.S. from colonial times to the present.
A note on the use of gendered language in this article: In recent years, the language used to talk about gender has shifted to meet the understanding that gender is a spectrum. Likewise, matters historically categorized as "women's issues," such as pregnancy and abortion, don't only impact cisgender women, but also trans, nonbinary, and gender-nonconforming people.
In an effort to stay true to the language used in historical accounts cited in this article, we have employed language as it was used during those times. However, for the parts of this article that refer to present-day issues, we have used more expansive terminology.
Related: Abortion laws around the world