Newsletter #3 (Fall 1992)

The RU486 Abortion Seizure Controversy: Echoes of U.S. v. One Package

Lawrence Lader, head of Abortion Rights Mobilization and author of The Margaret Sanger Story (1955), took a page from Sanger's strategy book in early July when he and his colleagues arranged a test case challenging laws banning the importation of RU486, the so-called French abortion pill. The well-orchestrated incident in which a pregnant woman, Leona Benten, attempted to bring 12 RU486 pills through a customs check at Kennedy airport, dramatically recalls the U.S. v. One Package case instigated by Sanger in the 1930s. We see striking parallels between the older case and the recent court actions that began when a Brooklyn judge overturned the Federal seizure of the RU486 and Justice Clarence Thomas upheld the seizure.

In 1933, after several unsuccessful years of lobbying for a congressional amendment to repeal the Comstock Law banning the dissemination of birth control information on grounds of obscenity, Sanger decided to turn to the courts. Teamed with formidable civil liberties attorney, Morris Ernst, Sanger arranged for a Japanese doctor to send a package of diaphragms to Dr. Hannah Stone, director of Sanger's Birth Control Clinical Research Bureau. Customs agents were alerted and the package was seized as a violation of the 1930 Tariff Act (an outgrowth of the 1873 Comstock Law) that prohibited "all persons ... from importing into the United States from any foreign country ... any article whatsoever for the prevention of conception...." Sanger and Ernst contested the seizure, and the case, officially known as United States v. One Package Containing 120, more or less, Rubber Pessaries to Prevent Conception, began its journey through the courts.

The case came up for trial in the U.S. District Court in New York in December 1935. Judge Grover M. Moscowitz dismissed the case, stating that Federal restrictions should not apply to materials intended for legitimate medical purposes, an argument which Sanger had trumpeted publicly since her first clinic was shut down by the police in 1916. The Federal Government appealed the decision and in November of 1936, in the Second Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, Justices Augustus N. Hand, Learned Hand, and Thomas W. Swan delivered a landmark decision in Sanger's favor. Not only did they uphold the District Court's decision, but they struck at the framework of the Comstock Law, asserting that it had become obsolete. Contraception, the judges argued, had proven over time to be safe and was advocated by "a weight of authority in the medical world."

Sanger called the One Package decision "the greatest legal victory in the birth control movement." It opened the mails for physicians to receive contraceptives and removed the stain of obscenity from Sanger's now popular crusade. However, importation restrictions on non-physicians remained in effect until 1971. As the RU486 incident underscores, the Federal government has continued to use the importation laws to restrict access to contraceptives and abortifacients.

The One Package decision was another public relations triumph for Sanger, who clearly grasped the importance of effective publicity during her long campaign to legalize contraception. As he engineers his own considerable public relations campaign around RU486, Lawrence Lader is paying homage to the subject of his 1955 biography. We can only hope that he is as successful.