For decades, the coat hanger had been a salient image of unsafe, illegal abortions. And with the potential overturning of Roe v. Wade, it’s tempting for many to believe that the state of abortions will return to pre-1973 conditions, with coat hangers once again representing the tool with which they’ll be performed. But it’s just not true. In fact, it’s borderline misinformation to emphasize the coat hanger as a symbol of illegal abortions when the majority of abortions today are conducted with pills — something that can and will continue to be the case, even when the laws are changed.
Like the tired images of Handmaid’s Tale and Ruth Bader Ginsburg quotes, the coat hanger has quickly become a token of unhelpful narratives being spun since the Roe v. Wade leak earlier this week. Imagining a future reality based on one book/TV show, glorifying a departed judge and throwing around stock illustrations of wire coat hangers do nothing to either ensure that abortion rights are protected or help people access safe abortions. While the former might feel intangible, the latter is, in fact, in our hands.
Currently, the World Health Organization recommends that abortions occurring within the first trimester (under 12 weeks pregnant) be conducted independently, without direct supervision of a health-care provider, using mifepristone and misoprostol medication. These medications are administered in the form of five pills, taken one to two days apart at home, and they have a better safety record than Tylenol, Viagra and penicillin. Most importantly, these medications are currently available in all 50 states and can be delivered via mail, without an in-person doctor’s visit.
While the future of Roe v. Wade may present a threat to the legal availability of these medications in some states, it won’t stop people from accessing and distributing them through other means. And if abortion does become fully illegal for some, these pills should continue to be their first choice for abortion care — not this image of a back-alley abortion conducted with a wire coat hanger, as the current narrative suggets.
This isn’t to say that criminalizing abortions won’t result in some people undergoing life-threatening procedures, or that people haven’t died or been severely injured doing so. In 2015, 31-year-old Anna Yocca was charged with attempted first-degree murder for trying to self-abort with a coat hanger in the restrictive state of Tennessee, and in 2018, an Argentinian woman died of septic shock after trying to use parsley to terminate her pregnancy.
Considering abortion pills are only intended for the first trimester, the risk that others beyond this window will require a surgical abortion — or use unsafe means on themselves — will persist. However, pills still ought to continue to be the first method in people’s minds when they consider an abortion. Currently in the U.S., 54 percent of abortions are done with pills. In countries like Sweden and Finland, that figure is over 90 percent.
If our goal in protecting abortion rights is, in large part, to protect the safety and bodily autonomy of women, using the coat hanger as the sole image of the movement is a threat to that goal. It’s a gruesome image, one that further adds fear and stigma to abortions themselves, and it suggests the coat hanger is an option, which it needn’t be. We can still honor the history of abortions past and the dangers women experienced, but the coat hanger doesn’t need to be at the forefront of the current discourse when a better path is available.
A five-pack of pills may not be as striking as the coat hanger, but it’s a far safer and more accurate image to promote.