19th century abortion act revived by telco bill, critics warn

Rohit Khare (khare@pest.w3.org)
Thu, 8 Feb 96 15:38:08 -0500

19th century abortion act revived by telco bill, critics warn

By Margaret Kane


The giant telecommunications bill passed by both houses of Congress last week
has a broader reach than many people realize.

A little-noticed amendment to the bill would update the 1873 Comstock Act,
which outlaws the transmission of information on how to obtain an abortion, to
include electronic communications.

Although the act is "moribund," in the words of one legal expert, it remains
federal law. The amendment to the act could have the effect of making illegal
actions ranging from discussing abortion over the Internet to listing abortion
providers in an electronic yellow pages, said officials at the American Civil
Liberties Union.

"If I was the president of Pacific Bell or any [regional Bell operating
company] I'd be a little nervous, because it's the yellow pages that most
women go to get information on abortions," said Barry Steinhardt, associate
director of the ACLU.

Rep. Pat Schroeder (D-Colo.), a member of the house judiciary committee,
called the extension of the law "crazy," and said in a statement that she
would introduce legislation on February 26 to delete the ban.

"It's ridiculously obsolete and unconstitutional to keep this ban on
abortion-related speech in the law," she stated.

The provision was introduced by Rep. Henry Hyde (R-Illinois), chairman of the
house judiciary committee.

According to the Congressional Record, Hyde said the provision would prohibit
using an online service for "selling, procuring or facilitating the sale of
drugs, medicines, or other devices intended for use in producing abortions."

Steinhardt said the law could be interpreted to prohibit listings of abortion
providers in electronic yellow pages, or even the reference to abortion
clinics included in legal documents and court files.

"Just the names of the case tell you where you can obtain an abortion," he
said. "The Supreme Court could be held liable for information that's on its
Web site."

But Sen. James Exon (D-Neb.) said abortion has "nothing to do with our proposal."

The law "has no bearing on the Decency Act," he said in a statement.

Steinhardt said that even if the legislation is signed by the president, he
doubts the Clinton administration would attempt to enforce it.

"But we're going to have an election this year, and we can have a new
president," he said.