Justice  /  Antecedent

The 113-Year-Old Law Behind Anti-Abortion Activists’ Latest Scheme

The Christian right is pushing a slate of laws to stop a new, vague offense they have dubbed “abortion trafficking.”

What is the Mann Act, and what could a law passed more than 60 years before Roe was decided have to do with abortion? Here’s how the Post described Dickson’s argument:

Asked about the constitutionality of his ordinances, Dickson cites the Mann Act, a federal law from 1910 that makes it illegal to transport “any woman or girl for the purpose of prostitution or debauchery, or for any other immoral purpose.” If the Mann Act is constitutional, he says, so is this.

Unfortunately for Dickson, this is not at all what the Mann Act says. The language forbidding transporting a woman or girl “for any other immoral purpose” in the Act was replaced in 1986 and now reads instead, “any sexual activity for which any person can be charged with a criminal offense.”

Perhaps most importantly, invoking the Mann Act like Dickson is doing offers yet more evidence of how anti-abortion activists, even after ending Roe, continue to push on the limits of the law. They enjoy more influence than ever in judiciaries and legislatures across the country, and they are getting bolder in taking up yet more creative ways to restrict bodily autonomy—as if confirming to the rest of us that it’s their moral goodness alone that can determine what a law means.

This is not the first time anti-abortion activists have repurposed Victorian-era law post-Dobbs as part of their effort to further criminalize abortion. Reviving old laws is all the rage for the post-Roe anti-abortion movement in its efforts to squash further access. Attorneys with Alliance Defending Freedom, a Christian Nationalist law project, have turned to the Comstock Act of 1873 in their attempts to reverse the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of mifepristone, one of two drugs commonly used to self-administer abortion. The return of the Comstock Act, which made it illegal to send “obscene, lewd or lascivious” material by mail (among other prohibitions) and was named after the notorious anti-abortion crusader Anthony Comstock, was bad enough. But it is something else to see the Mann Act now join the ranks.

The Mann Act came out of a social purity movement adjacent to Comstock’s crusade: aligning anti-vice reformers against what they called “white slavery” or prostitution. In 1910, after a few decades of political agitation, the movement scored a major victory after Congress passed the White Slave Traffic Act. As Jessica Pliley, author of Policing Sexuality: The Mann Act and the Making of the FBI and professor of the history of women, genders, and sexualities at Texas State University, explained by phone this week, the Mann Act was intended to prosecute people profiting from commercial sex—but in the hands of enforcers, it expanded into a tool to police nonmarital sex more broadly if the couple involved crossed state, district, or territory lines.