The coat hanger comes of age

Evaluating the power — and limitations — of a pre-Roe symbol in a post-Roe world.

Exterior view of the Ohio Statehouse. CREDIT: Wikicommons/Bestbudbrian
Exterior view of the Ohio Statehouse. CREDIT: Wikicommons/Bestbudbrian

The foundation of the Ohio Statehouse is more than 18 feet deep and was constructed by inmates from the Ohio Penitentiary. The Statehouse itself, a limestone Greek revival in downtown Columbus, took 22 years to build. Construction started on Independence Day, 1839, and it wasn’t until after the foundation and ground floors were built that skilled tradesmen complained about the missed opportunity for work and replaced prison laborers at the site.

If, as 2017 dawns, a new Statehouse were to be constructed, and were prison labor employed for this task, among the fourth-degree felons pouring the foundation could be any doctor who provided an abortion to a woman who was more than 20 weeks along in her pregnancy — this thanks to the one-two punch of an abortion-restriction bill Governor John Kasich signed on Tuesday and a 2013 bill that allows Ohio judges to sentence individuals who commit fourth- and fifth-degree felonies to prison for a first time offense.

Gov. John Kasich speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, Friday, Sept. 16, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Gov. John Kasich speaks during the daily news briefing at the White House in Washington, Friday, Sept. 16, 2016. CREDIT: AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster

Last Friday, to protest against not just this 20-week bill, which chips an entire month off the standard set by Roe v. Wade, but also against a far more extreme measure known as the “heartbeat bill” — which did not ultimately pass, but would have banned an abortion after six weeks, before most women even know they are pregnant—pro-choice activists in Columbus decided to send a message to Kasich. (The six-week bill passed in the Ohio House and Senate last week but was line-item vetoed; the 20-week bill was a standalone piece of legislation.)

Andrew Miller and his like-minded friends had made the usual efforts — Facebook posts, calling the governor’s office, Facebook posts encouraging people to call the governor’s office — but by Friday afternoon, Miller said, “people were lamenting [that] we needed to increase pressure.”

Miller works downtown, right by the Statehouse, around which three-foot high metal fencing was installed in 2012 as an added security measure (predicting the fence anxiety around the White House by four years). “I just thought: What’s the most obvious and sort of gruesome visual associated with the pre-Roe era?” he said. “And that’s the coat hanger.”

Since the late 1960s, the coat hanger has served as the pro-choice symbol of choice. It jolts you back to the era before abortion was legal, when you could be so out of options that this sharp object — though it brought with it excruciating pain and risk of permanent damage, even death — was your only option. For a woman who remembers life before Roe v. Wade, it is a stand-in for an era she refuses to relive.

Miller sent up a rallying cry on Facebook, inviting friends to “remind Gov. Kasich of what abortion ‘services’ look like when we make abortion illegal.” That evening, Miller’s mother-in-law hung the first hanger. Hers had a small heart attached to it, on which she’d written the word “remember.”

Protestors and hangers outside the Ohio Statehouse on Saturday, December 10, 2016. CREDIT: Andrew Miller
Protestors and hangers outside the Ohio Statehouse on Saturday, December 10, 2016. CREDIT: Andrew Miller

By Saturday morning, when Miller and his friends returned, they had “several hundred hangers” in tow. They placed the wire hangers along the fence of the Statehouse, as one might drape twinkling Christmas lights.

Local media arrived; the protest grew. Miller estimates that “by about 6:00 p.m… the fencing along two of the three streets was entirely covered with coat hangers.” That night, the hangers were removed. (Miller doesn’t know who removed them.) At noon on Sunday, another activist held a protest march outside the Statehouse, so Miller and his friends “replaced essentially all of the coat hangers that were pulled down.” The hangers were taken down overnight again, and some activists suggested people order coat hangers from Amazon. “From my understanding, several hundred coat hangers are on their way or have already been delivered to Gov. Kasich’s office in protest against these unconstitutional bills.”

In his veto message, Kasich explained why he vetoed the six-week ban: Bills just like it had already been deemed unconstitutional and its passage would have resulted in a costly court battle that would surely be lost. As for the 20-week ban, Ohio Right to Life President Michael Gonidakis told The Columbus-Dispatch that it “was nationally designed to be the vehicle to end abortion in America.”

Savvy reporters speculated that Kasich was planning to veto the so-called heartbeat bill and pass the 20-week ban all along, that the former was a decoy to lure attention away from the latter. It appears those predictions came true. That is unless, on Tuesday morning, Kasich looked out the window from his office on the 30th floor of the Riffe Center, gazed across South High Street at the Statehouse fence, saw the hundreds of hangers so small in the distance they must have looked like little more than a jumble of paper clips, and reconsidered his long-held opposition to abortion.

The coat hanger has endured all these decades as the most powerful symbol in the reproductive rights activist’s arsenal. But to whom, exactly, is it powerful? Are the very things that make it so strong to those who already support abortion rights — its ability to summon a vision of a grisly, dangerous act — also the things that keep would-be supporters at a distance? And as those who remember life before Roe become the minority in the pro-choice movement, will the coat hanger lose its meaning?

Before Roe v. Wade, there was the less-catchy but still-crucial Abramowicz v. Lefkowitz. Don’t feel too bad if you’ve never heard of it; it was dismissed as moot because the New York legislature legalized abortion before a judicial decision could be reached. But the lawsuit — which 350 women eventually joined — “brought the first challenge to the constitutionality of abortion statutes in which women were the plaintiffs and the issues raised were those of a woman’s right to abortion rather than the right of the doctor to practice medicine” and set an example for lawsuits in five nearby states to follow. And one of those cases, in Connecticut (Abele v. Markle), was “particularly influential” in shaping the judicial opinions in Roe.

The first Abramowicz hearing was in 1972. As Nancy Stearns, one of the leaders in the pre-Roe legislative abortion-rights battles, wrote (emphasis added):

The courtroom became a focal point of political action. At the first hearing, women crowded the courtroom, carrying babies and holding coat hangers. At the close of the hearing, the women and babies left, leaving coat hangers strewn about the room as a symbol of the instruments of illegal abortion and their brutal impact on women’s lives.

Though coat hangers had already been used in large-scale abortion rights protests — including a April 1969 demonstration in Washington by over 300,000 protesters, where “marchers wore coat hangers around their necks and held signs reading, ‘Never again,’” and a 1970 “Coat Hanger Farewell” protest march to Bellevue Hospital led by Florynce Kennedy — the Abramowicz case, as Sherie M. Randolph wrote in her book about Kennedy, “helped make the coat hanger the major symbol of the growing reproductive rights movement because it symbolized the dangerous methods women were forced to use to abort pregnancies on their own.”

Since then, wherever there is a threat to abortion rights, the coat hanger, in some way, appears. In 1984, Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist Paul Conrad criticized then-President George H.W. Bush’s pro-weapons but anti-abortion stance by depicting Bush holding a gun in one hand and a coat hanger in the other. Four years later, Conrad took on critics of legal abortion with an image of Justice holding a coat hanger instead of scales.

The coat hanger flooded the homepage of the Huffington Post in 2012, after the Republican party approved a convention platform plank opposing abortion in all cases. In 2013, eight protesters in Wisconsin were arrested after trying to deliver coat hangers to Republican politicians who supported a bill that forced women to endure an ultrasound prior to getting an abortion. The D.C. Abortion Fund gives away a silver coat hanger pendant to monthly contributors, a practice since 2009 that sparked backlash in 2014 amid heated debates about the Hobby Lobby contraception case before the Supreme Court. Earlier this year, protesters in Poland took to the streets, coat hangers in hand, after Catholic priests called for the country to ban abortions completely.

Images from an April 9, 2016 abortion rights protests in Poland. CREDIT: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski
Images from an April 9, 2016 abortion rights protests in Poland. CREDIT: AP Photo/Czarek Sokolowski

“‘It’s a reminder of where we’ve been and where we will not go again,” said Maureen Shaw, a freelance journalist who reports on reproductive justice. “I think it’s a call to action. And I think it’s a call to, at all costs, avoid complacency.”

Another factor that would be naive to exclude: Coat hangers are cheap and accessible. That was part of Miller’s thinking. “[In] protesting not just these issues but being an activist in general, one of the biggest issues is making things simple, so that people can easily participate. It’s scary for a lot of people to put themselves out there… Most of us in our closets have some wire hangers sitting around, you could conceivably just go home and grab a few, come and hang them up… [It’s] a way to participate that didn’t really cost anything.”

There is something odd about it, though. Something difficult. Abortion rights activists have grasped onto a practically simple but narratively complicated symbol. The hanger echoes the nooses worn as necklaces by civil rights protesters, but stranger still: While an understanding of lynching gives the noose specificity and, by extension, greater power, even someone who knows nothing of racist killings in America knows what that loop of rope is for. But without a baseline fluency in the history of reproductive rights in this country, the hanger makes no sense. Unlike with the graphic images plastered on the posters of anti-abortion protesters, a passerby unfamiliar with the message won’t recognize the medium.

But once you know what you’re seeing, you can’t un-see it. The wire hanger is an ordinary object made horrifying through context. Its purpose is not to convert non-believers or to teach something not already known. It is the past threatening to be the future. It meets memory halfway, and nods.

The phrase “coat hanger abortion” sounds sepia-toned, a term of art from a distant time. And that’s because, with extremely limited exception — the notable case of Anna Yocca in Tennessee being one such anomaly — it is.

Miller said part of the reason the coat hanger imagery is so crucial is because “when [abortions] are illegal, they often happen in really gruesome ways, including sticking sharp objects up inside of the woman, such as a wire hanger.” But available data indicate that this is not the case: The modern woman seeking an abortion, like the modern woman seeking basically anything, is more likely to turn to her computer than her closet. Odds are, should clinical care not be available to her, she will go online to order pills to terminate her pregnancy at home.

According to Jill E. Adams, the executive director of the Center on Reproductive Rights and Justice at University of California, Berkeley, “The best social science data we have suggests that the vast majority of people who self-induce abortion are using traditional herbs and pharmaceutical pills. Not coat hangers, not other more violent and dangerous methods. And we’re not talking about highly privileged populations. We’re often talking about people who are choosing to self-induce because they can’t overcome all of the obstacles to abortion care: immigrant communities, low income communities, overwhelmingly communities of color.”

It is worth noting that criminalizing abortion has little effect on the total number of abortions that occur: A recent report by the Guttmacher Institute and the World Health Organization found that, while many developing countries have outlawed abortion and strictly limited access to contraception, the rate of abortions around the globe has stayed nearly constant.

The Texas Policy Evaluation Project, which documents and researches the impact of reproductive health legislation in the state, found in 2015 that somewhere between 100,000 and 240,000 women of reproductive age in Texas had attempted to self-induce an abortion. (This study was conducted a year before the Supreme Court overturned House Bill 2, which required all Texas facilities performing abortions to meet hospital-style standards, and a separate provision requiring doctors to have admitting privileges at a hospital within 30 miles of an abortion clinic. HB-2 reduced the number of abortion clinics in the entire state of Texas from 40 to just 19.)

The most commonly-reported method among women who reported knowing someone who had attempted to induce an abortion? Misoprostol, a drug that can be used by itself to terminate a pregnancy. (Taken alone, “miso” is effective in terminating a pregnancy 80 percent of the time, according to the World Health Organization.) But women who seek out miso on their own risk buying fake pills that won’t induce a miscarriage, bringing a woman further along in a pregnancy that gets riskier to terminate by the week. Other methods cited by the TPEP included homeopathic remedies, alcohol, even being punched in the stomach — but no sharp objects of any kind.

Kay Jones of Beacon, N.Y., holds up a sign during the pro-choice demonstration in front of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., April 9, 1989. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
Kay Jones of Beacon, N.Y., holds up a sign during the pro-choice demonstration in front of the Capitol in Washington, D.C., April 9, 1989. CREDIT: AP Photo/Rick Bowmer

When a person learns that women in America still self-induce abortions outside the medical system, Adams said, “they tend to make a logical leap to the coat hanger abortions of days of yore, that they are automatically dangerous.” In a society in which abortion, particularly self-induced abortion, is already stigmatized, Adams worries that the coat hanger “may be perpetuating misconceptions about self-induced abortion in the present day that are harmful…Self-induced abortion in 2016 is happening, for the most part, safely, effectively, and privately.”

Though she didn’t have an alternative to the coat hanger at the ready, Adams said, “I’d like to see the movement come up with an equally compelling image that’s more forward-looking about, what is the future that we want? And that doesn’t perpetuate these falsehoods about dangers related to self-induced abortion.”

One can understand, though, why messaging like Adams’ has not caught on in the mainstream pro-choice movement. Try to picture it on a poster: Women end pregnancies now using the same pills they would get from a doctor… but we can’t let Roe get overturned! Women are already inducing their own abortions and it’s mostly quite safe… but keep fighting for reproductive rights! It is difficult — it might be impossible — to both assure a skittish nation that self-induced abortions are not, by and large, grisly affairs and to galvanize reproductive rights activists.

Because of the relative rarity of coat hanger abortions in the 21st century, even as the anti-abortion movement pushes for increasingly draconian laws, it is possible that the coat hanger will be an artifact whose significance subsides over time.

“I think it probably will lose some of its power and messaging ability,” said Adams. “The people for whom, I think, that image is the most powerful are those who were alive at a time prior to Roe v. Wade, when coat hangers were used more commonly to end pregnancies and self-induced abortion was riskier because of uterine perforation and sepsis and other things that could lead to maternal death. And I think it’s reasonable to expect that as the generations who were alive [at that time] die out, and therefore the people who are familiar with that as the normative self-inducing practice are no longer with us, that it will lose hold. It will no longer be dominant in the discourse and the imagery about this subject.”

Shaw disagrees. “I think it will still be evocative, just as it is for me, as somebody who has been blessed to be raised in a post-Roe v. Wade world. Because you don’t have to, I think, have experienced the gruesomeness of those days to appreciate what women went through and what we could very well face again. I think it is empathy and understanding that, just because it doesn’t happen right this second doesn’t mean that it can’t happen again.”

And the violence inherent in the object, Shaw said, is as evident as ever. “It is very stark and gruesome, so that does have staying power, visually speaking.”

For Ohio’s Andrew Miller, the coat hanger works in part because of the gory experience it recalls; it is the closest the pro-choice community has — and maybe will — come to the anti-choice side’s graphic images of bloody fetuses.

“The anti-choice crowd has done a much better job of arguing their point through gruesome visuals,” he said, which is not to say he agrees with the tactic but that he acknowledges its effectiveness. On the pro-choice side, “There is a real risk that people find themselves so far removed from what that was like and what that meant that they lose perspective on what it is that they’re fighting for.” It’s why he hopes that putting hangers at the Statehouse “reinvigorates people’s interest in what it actually looked like. Visually, what it looked like, to be a woman who has just self-induced an abortion and is probably in need of serious medical attention and can’t get it because if they go to the hospital they might be arrested for murder.”

A hanger for the Ohio Statehouse on Saturday, December 10, 2016. CREDIT: Andrew Miller
A hanger for the Ohio Statehouse on Saturday, December 10, 2016. CREDIT: Andrew Miller

Whether or not the coat hanger itself remains the symbol of the pro-choice movement, it is fair to expect Americans who believe in reproductive rights to be even more active in the coming year. President-elect Donald Trump, a man who crudely and inaccurately described a late-term abortion as one in which “in the ninth month you can take the baby and rip the baby out of the womb of the mother,” will be sworn in on January 20. At his side will be Vice President-elect Mike Pence who, as governor of Indiana, signed an anti-abortion law so appalling it horrified even anti-choice Republicans. Pence’s anti-reproductive rights work is so infamous that, in the weeks following Trump’s election, 46,000 donations to Planned Parenthood were made in Pence’s name.

It seems if there is ever a time to either double-down on, or reevaluate, how pro-choice activists want to brand themselves, the moment for the movement to do so is now.