The Coat Hanger as a Symbol, and Why Abortion Access Matters

October 2018 Update: Attacks on the right to bear children, have children, or raise children, if and when we desire, are not new — and reproductive rights activists have long noted the lengths that people will go to when they cannot access safe abortion care. From unidentifiable pills and herbal remedies to ingesting Lysol and yes, to inserting a coat hanger into one’s cervix to induce abortion, it is no secret that desperate measures are sometimes taken when there seems to be no other option. The image of the coat hanger thus became a popular symbol of what the world was like in the US before Roe v. Wade. In fact, DC Abortion Fund used to give tiny silver coat hangers to our monthly donors.

But times change and movements shift.

While it is certainly scary to consider that pre-Roe world, much about the landscape has changed. Medication abortion now allows for a self-managed process that can be much safer than ones our ancestors took. And though it is crucial that we acknowledge even access to this is dependent upon and limited by geography, finances, and information access, it is unhelpful to cast the tone of “dark and desperate choices” when referring to what the future holds for most, even as abortion access wanes in this country.  Because of this, we no longer give out hanger pendants, but do still believe in fighting like hell to ensure that we do not return to a world where the only options for people seeking abortion care are silence, stigma, shame, and unsafe conditions.

We also recognize that for many, particularly people who are lower income, live in rural areas, and/or are people of color, abortion rights have been rolled back and restricted even as Roe v. Wade remains on the books. Often, these people are our patients. And every donation we get helps our all-volunteer led and run organization contribute to covering the cost of abortion for these patients. Along with other funds across the country, we are facing increases in need as distance between providers grow, costs are driven up, and states and the federal government refuse to ensure abortion care for all who need it. In the face of this, we continue to do the radical work of funding abortion care for those in DC , Maryland, and Virginia who need it. You can donate to that work here.

Brooke Butler, Movement Building Director

It’s said that those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it. Lately, it seems there’s been a lot of forgetfulness about the history of reproductive freedom. The coat hanger has long been a symbol of the reproductive rights movement. The DC Abortion Fund – contrary to recent conservative media reports – has for many years given away a silver coat hanger pendant to our monthly supporters.

The pendant is nothing new or even particularly newsworthy.

What does your donation go to? Helping women in need. DCAF is a small, all-volunteer organization that gives out grants to patients in DC, Maryland, and Virginia who can’t afford the full cost of abortion care. We are no stranger to opposition, but we do this work because we know what the stakes are if we don’t. Due to distance, cost, and other state-imposed burdens, it is increasingly difficult to access safe abortion care here in the DC metro area and around the country. As a result, we – and many other funds around the country – have seen demand for our help increase steadily, with more and more women calling us for help.

Why is the coat hanger a symbol of the reproductive rights movement? Because lack of access to abortion causes women to go to desperate lengths to terminate a pregnancy, similar to those undertaken in the pre-Roe v Wade era. At that time, consuming Lysol and household poisons was not uncommon to instigate abortion. Nor was inserting knitting needles, Coke bottles, and – yes – wire coat hangers into their cervices.

It might make you cringe to imagine just how desperate one must be to go to these lengths. But here at DCAF, I don’t have to imagine. We hear from women every day who are that desperate, with no one else to turn to. With our help, they access quality, safe abortion care – no wire coat hangers needed.

The coat hanger is a reminder of patient’s suffering when abortion is placed out of reach. It is a promise from reproductive rights advocates to never go back to the grotesque world our anti-choice opponents are striving for: a world WITHOUT safe access to abortion, where people might have to resort to horrific alternatives like a coat hanger. That’s why our supporters love the pendants and wear them as a point of pride.

While we were surprised by the conservative media’s ignorance of the history of the coat hanger’s symbolism, we certainly welcome the spotlight on our efforts to help women.

by Val Vilott