What the Coat Hanger Means

Chris's picture

One of the problems with politics is how words and images can slip from being portrayals of people's lives into trite cliché so easily that you can't even remember when the line was crossed. For example, take the coat hanger.

The No Coat Hangerscoat hanger has been the symbol of activists who work to keep abortion a viable choice for all women everywhere. It represents the bad old days, when abortion was illegal in many parts of the country, although being illegal never stopped it from happening. The coat hanger has become ubiquitous in the debate over abortion. So much so that its meaning seems to have become invisible. It's been over thirty years now since Roe V. Wade was first handed down, and a couple of generations have grown up and become sexually active with the choice of abortion as something that could be taken as granted. The coat hanger and the deaths and self-mutilations it represents has become part of our intellectual wallpaper, something that is so old and familiar that we barely think of it at all. When we do, many people are likely to see the coat hanger as more symbolic of earnest young activists wound up on idealism and hyperbole than as part of our history.

One of the most reprehensible men of the twentieth century, Josef Stalin, is alleged to have also said one of the wisest things to come out of that time: "A single death is a tragedy," he said. "A million is a statistic." And so we have a hard time imagining what the coat hanger means, if we even put the mental effort into imagining it at all.

But yesterday, the New York Times ran an article by a man who doesn't have to imagine: Waldo Fielding is a retired 80-something gynecologist who saw the consequences of illegal abortions coming into the New York hospitals where he trained between 1948 and 1953. It's harsh, blunt stuff, not for the faint of heart:

The familiar symbol of illegal abortion is the infamous “coat hanger” — which may be the symbol, but is in no way a myth. In my years in New York, several women arrived with a hanger still in place. Whoever put it in — perhaps the patient herself — found it trapped in the cervix and could not remove it.

We did not have ultrasound, CT scans or any of the now accepted radiology techniques. The woman was placed under anesthesia, and as we removed the metal piece we held our breath, because we could not tell whether the hanger had gone through the uterus into the abdominal cavity. Fortunately, in the cases I saw, it had not.

Fielding also says that although the coat hanger might be the icon, just about anything that a woman could insert inside herself was used to cause her to abort. The list includes knitting needles and crochet hooks, soda bottles either broken or intact, and salt shakers. He is very calm and precise in his descriptions of his memories. There is no hyperbole or propagandizing here, and that's what makes this essay so starkly horrible and necessary. He also describes a single memorable case of an abortion gone wrong:

The worst case I saw, and one I hope no one else will ever have to face, was that of a nurse who was admitted with what looked like a partly delivered umbilical cord. Yet as soon as we examined her, we realized that what we thought was the cord was in fact part of her intestine, which had been hooked and torn by whatever implement had been used in the abortion. It took six hours of surgery to remove the infected uterus and ovaries and repair the part of the bowel that was still functional.

The battles that get fought over abortion sometimes seem so repetitive and mired in moralistic bullshit on both sides that it's sometimes hard to remember what the consequences of failure are. Sometimes "pro-choice" just sounds like a fundraising slogan that nonprofit corporations can use to wring a few extra dollars out of us. It's easy to forget what the religious right wants us to return to, especially since so many of us never lived through it. Thanks to Dr. Fielding for sharing these unpleasant memories so honestly.