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ON THE SYMBOLIC POWER OF COAT HANGERS

By Vanessa Norton

Recently, I was having dinner with a friend I’ve known since we were eight. Her name is Jenn. She brought up an interesting question: does the coat hanger still hold power as a chilling symbol of pre-Roe v. Wade? Now that there are other methods of “back alley” abortions, what symbolic power do these hold? 

Jenn and I are 40. Our mothers’ generation, and the feminists who influenced us as girls, lived their most fertile years pre-Roe. As teenagers in the early 1990s, Jenn and I felt very close to that history.     

During our senior year of high school, the anti-abortion terrorist organization, Operation Rescue, invaded our home city of Buffalo, NY with the intenion of closing down our clinics. Jenn and I drove her parents’ car every morning at 4am to defend the clinics (a couple of which were conveniently located just blocks from our downtown high school!) The coat hanger was ubiquitous as an image on placards or struck high in the air. I remember feeling something deep and fearful whenever I saw one. 

The OR people used their typically grusome posters of fetal body parts. So, Jenn made a sign of a woman who bled to death in a motel room, an image she copied from a black and white photo in Our Bodies, Ourselves. 

Today, if a person wants to terminate a pregnancy and can not access abortion, she may try some of the same methods women utilized pre-Roe: herbs, vitamin C, parseley, and the like. But if her pregnancy is later than 6 weeks, those are not likely to work. She may be able to access Misoprostol and Mifepritone online (https://www.womenonweb.org), or in some countries, at a pharmacy. These non-descript white little pills work the majority of the time if a pregnancy is 9 weeks or less. But that still leaves later-term pregnancies, which get more expensive and dangerous to abort.  

What symbolic power could packets of pills carry, especially compared with coat hangers?

Does the movement to defend and expand access to legal abortion need symbols?  

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