In February, my graduate students in Public Health at a major research university and teaching medical school on the East Coast were discussing a new political cartoon by Pulitzer Prize winner Ann Telnaes I brought to class showing President Bush, as a tailor, holding an empty Supreme Court Justice robe in one hand and an “unraveled” wire coat hanger in the other.

The point of that Public Health class was to research crises in Public Health that are embedded in mainstream culture via history, art, literature and mass media entertainment portals. Telnaes has a similar cartoon this morning where President Bush is handing a judge’s robe to his Supreme Court nominee, John Roberts, and Bush is handing over an “unraveled” wire coat hanger to a woman on the street.

Bush says to her, “Here — hold this.” My students, who were all female, incredibly bright and intelligent, and fell into an age range between 20 and 23, did not understand that February cartoon. “I see the robe. I don’t understand the wire coat hanger,” one student said.

Every woman there nodded with her in agreement. They did not understand what the wire coat hanger had to do with a judge’s robe. For a moment I thought they were putting me on. I asked them, “You don’t understand what a wire coat hanger has to do with the Supreme Court?” They answered me with blank faces.

When I told them there was a time in the United States when women — poor women who did not have access to doctors or proper healthcare — would “unravel” a wire coat hanger, insert the hooked end into their vaginas and perform a self-abortion in order to terminate an unwanted pregnancy because having another baby might kill her or push her family even deeper into poverty, I was met with universal looks of shock from my students. “Why didn’t women go to a doctor to get an abortion?”

I told them there was a time in the history of the United States when abortion and birth control were illegal. “Illegal, but available,” I continued, “if you had enough money to get around the law.” My students were horrified some women were forced, by law, and by the lever of economics, and by the unfortunate circumstance of their own births, to take the wire coat hanger approach.

Some students did not believe me. I told them they did not have to believe me and I directed them to Margaret Sanger’s autobiography where, in Chapter 7 titled, “The Turbid Ebb and Flow of Misery,” she relates the reality of the life of poor women in New York City in 1912. That awful inspiration led her to create the first birth control clinic in Brooklyn during 1916 — for which she was promptly jailed — and many consider Sanger the mother of Planned Parenthood.

Sanger starts her chapter with a quote from poet William Blake: Every night and every morn Some to misery are born. Every morn and every night Some are born to sweet delight. Some are born to sweet delight, Some are born to endless night.In this excerpt from her autobiography, Sanger describes the lives of the poor women of the Lower East Side she found as a working nurse in New York.

Many families took in “boarders,” as they were termed, whose small contributions paid the rent. These derelicts, wanderers, alternately working and drinking, were crowded in with the children; a single room sometimes held as many as six sleepers. Little girls were accustomed to dressing and undressing in front of the men, and were often violated, occasionally by their own fathers or brothers, before they reached the age of puberty. Pregnancy was a chronic condition among the women of this class.Suggestions as to what to do for a girl who was “in trouble” or a married woman who was “caught” passed from mouth to mouth — herb teas, turpentine, steaming, rolling downstairs, inserting slippery elm, knitting needles, shoe-hooks. When they had word of a new remedy they hurried to the drugstore, and if the clerk were inclined to be friendly he might say, “Oh, that won’t help you, but here’s something that may.” The younger druggists usually refused to give advice because, if it were to be known, they would come under the law; midwives were even more fearful.

The doomed women implored me to reveal the “secret” rich people had, offering to pay me extra to tell them; many really believed I was holding back information for money. They asked everybody and tried anything, but nothing did them any good. On Saturday nights I have seen groups of from fifty to one hundred with their shawls over their heads waiting outside the office of a five-dollar abortionist.

Abortion is an awful and a terrible thing, I told my students, and the mission that led Margaret Sanger over the scope of her life was simply to give poor women what rich women always had: Equal access to methods that would avoid pregnancy, because not getting pregnant in the first place removes the problem of dealing with an unwanted baby later.

I realized those smart, well-educated, and caring women in my class had lived their entire lives free from the fear women of my generation always had hanging over them: The Wire Coat Hanger Solution. I encouraged my students to get involved with this issue on a personal level if equal access to healthcare for poor women mattered to them.

One woman raised her hand and said, “We’ll never go back to wire coat hangers. That’s barbaric. This is America.

Women have the right to rule their bodies.” I nodded, and smiled at her, and thought to myself, “The misery of an endless night may be flowing again sooner than she thinks.”

32 Comments

  1. Ah yes, Margaret Sanger, penpal with Hitler’s scientists… (not joking. She really was.)
    Fear of a coat hanger hanging over them? (maybe if Faye Dunaway was holding it) Misery of an endless night… don’t you think that is overstating things a skosh? (or maybe a truckload?) Go back and ask the women, David. Do a survey. Ask how many of them laid awake nights desperately wishing and praying for the day that they could kill babies in their womb at will. I have had four babies. Pregnancy and motherhood are not exactly the unmitigated pit of despair you seem to be portraying.
    This fictional right did not even exist until it was created out of whole cloth in the past century. Just because people do not like biological reality does not mean their rights are being violated. I may find oxygen offensive and want to breathe only nitrogen. “I have a right to control my body!” I may cry. But if I try to live without oxygen I will suffer the very quick consequences of the “right” which I have demanded. Sex leads to babies – that is biological fact. It’s not a malfunction that needs to be fixed – like cancer or a broken leg.
    And women do have control over their own bodies and will have control over their own bodies whether abortion is legal or not. If you don’t want to have a baby then don’t have sex. It’s actually possible to live without sex and not have your head fall off! What a shallow people we have become that sex is considered the end-all be-all and anything that gets in your way of having as much of it as possible, like a baby, must be an evil that has to be remedied.
    (and don’t throw the whole rape/incest thing at me. The percentage of pregnancies which arise from those tragic circumstances is miniscule. The exception does not make the rule.)

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  2. I’m willing to bet the previous commenter has had a few more privileges in her life than the girls who were desperate enough to use coat hangers–and possibly considers those privileges “rights.”
    At any rate, its interesting that so many of your students didn’t understand the coat-hanger imagery; it shows how far things have changed, to the point where history repeats itself because people forget it.

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  3. Of course women will always have control over their own bodies. What they might not have control over is whether they can legally take control of what’s theirs.
    And because a women corresponded with Hitler’s scientists she has no authority on any other subject?
    For me, I could never have an abortion unless of a case of rape, which even if pregancy is a rare result, it doesn’t mean we should outlaw abortion in every case. But I have had friends and know of friends of friends who have terminated their pregnancies. While my heart ached for their decision, I respect their right to make it, and I’m thankful that they have the right to have this procedure done in a clean and safe (unless some freak is running around bombing clinics) place.
    It’s definitely a touchy subject, but I’m also afraid that there’s a real danger of overturning the Roe v. Wade decision, and that would put a lot of women in danger.

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  4. Hi Blest —
    I thank you for your message.
    The misery I was alluding to was the future fate of poor women in America who, if the Supreme Court overturns Rove v. Wade, will be the ones who suffer. My students will not suffer. They’ll be upset but they will be able to find a remedy to any problem they have because they are well-connected, smart and have access to resources.
    Women with access to power and money will always be able to get an abortion here or abroad so the only ones being punished by the impending threat of a return to Blake’s “misery” are those born into poverty.
    I don’t know how much time you’ve spent doing community work with minorities in urban centers like Newark, New Jersey, Jersey City, New Jersey and the Bronx, New York, but abstinence doesn’t work — so then what do you do?
    Abstinence is a great theory, but when the reality hits the road a lot of the poor are poorly educated, illiterate or unable to get a job above minimum wage and educating them about birth control methods, let alone giving them proper pre-natal care when they get pregnant, is a hard nut to crack for many cultural reasons.
    Many women in the urban core are either abandoned by their men after getting pregnant or they’re so controlled by their men that they do not really have social control over their bodies. If the role of the government is to provide for the social welfare, the government must then find a way to deal with these issues without blaming people for making mistakes or for being weak or stupid or for being poor.
    Elijah Anderson’s fine book “Code of the Street” details in an alarming way the reality of power and sex and status in urban communities and it brightly reflects the darkness of the misery to come where even more children may be born into poverty and failed by a government system that prefers missiles to medicine.

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  5. J.Star — You’re right about there being a whole “sleeping generation” of women who, thankfully, have had no need to understand the “wire coat hanger days” but if Roe v. Wade goes down there will be such an outraged awakening in these women that a whole new generation of activists will be set for a reckoning inventory of what really matters and what was really lost.
    Carla — Well said. I agree the danger is real.

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  6. Blest,
    I agree with you about the rape/incest cases. 99.999% of the time, these pregnancies are caused by immature and irresponsible people. There’s no excuse as to why taxpayers have to pay for abortions when there are many birth control options available on the market. Some of these resources are available for free (or very low cost) at free clinics, including the Pill!

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  7. In Nigeria, girls and women commit abortion with any prosecution and we have no record of deaths. But, there have been several tragedies.
    I produced over 8 Family Planning Methods booklets in four local languages for the Planned Parenthood in Nigeria for the poor women in Nigeria. Actually the Copper T and IUD look like the wire hanger.
    I am totally against abortion if the life of the pregnant girl or woman is not in danger.
    For example, I am totally against breeding deformed children.

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  8. Fascinating comment, Osinachi, and your comment about wire hangers looking like smaller contraceptive devices is telling because it brings home the awful truth of the historic concept.
    I know a woman in Nebraska who, at 14, tried to self-abort by pouring lye inside her vagina because she was too ashamed to ask her parents for help. She survived, her baby did not, and she is now barren at 28.
    As for breeding deformed children, where do you draw this Eugenics line? Limb deformation? Deafness? Mental Impairment? ADD? Blindness? Inability to procreate? Foetal DNA testing that might suggest Alzheimer’s in later life?

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  9. David,
    You bring up some very good points about the poor. Overturning the Roe vs. Wade measure will not help these people because they’re not the ones who are getting the abortions.
    If Roe vs. Wade goes down, the activists will have a field day unlike no other. The wire coathanger will come out, but it may be different this time. I’m thinking of the cases where girls have murdered their newborns and abandoned them in garbage dumpsters.

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  10. Hi Deborah —
    Baby dumping is happening today and you’re right that it may likely increase in the future.
    There are programs that will accept newborns without question and without the mother having to identify herself and I support that method of resolution.
    There are few young women, however, especially in small town and urban centers, who are able to carry a child for nine months without being “discovered” as pregnant and those are the sort of women who may suffer the most misery in the future because they will be forced to seek even more drastic undercover solutions.

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  11. Thank you for your level-headed and compassionate approach to this emotional topic. The way you treat all commenters with respect is refreshing.
    Your point about many women not having “social control” over their bodies is very true. In an ideal democracy, we would all have sex only when we wanted to, with easy, affordable access to birth control. Women would be educated about their bodies and how to prevent unwanted pregnancy. Abortion would be unnecessary in all but a small number of cases, when deemed a medical necessity for the mother, or in the few times when birth control fails.
    But when have we ever lived in an ideal world? There are always unplanned pregnancies, and we should work toward ending our judgment of these women, no matter what their economic status. We who have been raised in relatively stable environments have no right to pass judgment on those who struggle just to make ends meet. If a woman finds herself pregnant, and knows that her health or her poverty or her life will get even worse, who should make the decision whether or not to terminate the pregnancy? Congress? Religion? Peers?
    I say the woman should decide. No one should be forced to have an abortion, and no one should be forced not to have one.

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  12. Hi Amy!
    Thank you so much for your stirring, well-written and human comment on this difficult topic.
    I really appreciate the calm and even tone everyone uses here in the comments area. We don’t name call and we don’t try to insult or intentionally wound and the resulting dialogue is, as you suggest, refreshing and intellectually invigorating.

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  13. David: Nice entry. I like the way you wrote this- dispensing the information in a nice story about the class. Very vivid. And you described the subject matter in a strong concise manner. Kudos to your writing skills.

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  14. David, with all due respect, the horror of back alley abortions was largely a media creation based on bogus numbers spoon-fed to them by pro-abortion advocates. Granted, if you happen to know one of the few legitimate cases, it has more emotional impact. Nevertheless, the fact remains that a lie was greatly responsible for shaping cultural attitudes toward legalization. The political cartoon you cite is a shameful example of fear-mongering for political purpose with no basis in fact.
    Further, while I would never argue that life is easy or fair for people born into disadvantaged circumstances I fail to see how the compassionate solution is to offer scars that never heal. You say that abstinence “doesn’t work;” I presume you mean that it isn’t applied in the populations that need it most or are poorest equipped to deal with additional mouths to feed?
    That it works to prevent unwanted pregnancies is unquestionable. So, rather than throwing up our hands and conceding that some groups can never be taught self-respect or self-control, perhaps we should frankly examine whether an effort has ever been undertaken to impart those virtues, without simultaneously offering the easy path of unrestrained “protected” sex along with the assumption that they’re going to do that anyway.
    I’m not accusing you, by the way, of having the above-stated attitude toward any group, though I do believe your dismissal of abstinence education is tantamount to such a position.
    Again, I recognize that inner-city conditions can be horrific and that there are no silver bullet solutions to the day-to-day situations faced by their residents. I don’t believe, however, that the abortion debate has ever been about compassion for women there or anywhere.
    I will not, however, try to make the argument that all women can control the circumstances under which they might become pregnant. I agree with one previous commenter that our world is far from ideal.
    The problem is that we attempt to correct one injustice with an even greater one when we suggest that preventing a child from being born is to salvage a woman’s sovereignty over her life and body.
    It was not the difficulties faced by women in unfortunate circumstances that prompted the legalization of abortion. It was that we crossed a line somewhere in the pursuit of unfettered liberty and began to perceive the unthinkable as first unfortunate but understandable, then reasonable, and finally, horrifyingly, natural.
    Sorry for the length, David. I would just like to make two more points.
    First, have you and the other pro-choice advocates here considered how many women are forced to exercise their “right to chose” by fathers, husbands, or boyfriends? No, I don’t have numbers on that and doubt they could be accurately assessed, but anecdotal evidence leads me to conclude that it’s not a low number.
    Point being, the same men that can assert their will over the women’s bodies in getting them pregnant can assert their will via the clinic. All you’ve done is give irresponsible men a legal way to avoid child support.
    Second, and parenthetically, in response to Carla (comment#3), who questioned the relevance of Sanger’s acquaintance with Hitler’s Merry Band of Eugenicists, I respectfully submit that it is absolutely relevant if it sheds light on Sanger’s motivations for advocating legal birth control and abortion. Wikipedia’s entry on her contains a plethora of quotes near the bottom that leave little doubt that she shared some of the philosophies prized in Hitlerian medicine.

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  15. Responding to wire-hanger hysteria

    David W. Boles over at Urban Semiotic raises the oft-decried spectre of the wire-hanger abortion at the prospect of the confirmation of purportedly constructionist nominee to the Supreme Court, John Roberts. I responded on his comment thread (in a mod…

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  16. SCPanther —
    I was waiting for you to make an appearance here. You are BlestWithSon’s evangelical brother, correct? At least it appears that way based on this link:
    http://www.blestwithsons.com/?page_id=36
    and the reciprocal link back to her from your website and her positive commentary on your blog entries.
    After reading this on your website…
    About Me:
    http://www.reasonableforce.org/weblog/?page_id=165
    “I have been blessed with a beautiful, loving wife and a bright, healthy son whom I want to see grow into a man grounded in the reality of the Gospel of Jesus Christ and able to defend his beliefs against the arguments and attacks brought to bear by a God-hating culture.”
    …and then reading this on your website…
    Statement of Faith
    http://www.reasonableforce.org/weblog/?page_id=166
    What You Believe:
    “4. Being wholly and verbally God-given, Scripture is without error or fault in all its teaching, no less in what it states about God’s acts in creation, about the events of world history, and about its own literary origins under God, than in its witness to God’s saving grace in individual lives.”
    …and then reading the negative comments on your blog about science and the peer review process:
    http://www.reasonableforce.org/weblog/?p=229
    and
    http://www.reasonableforce.org/weblog/?p=202
    I do not believe you here to have a genuine intellectual discussion about the issue raised in my post and the following comments. I allowed your comment out of moderation because I am fond of BlestWithSons. I wish you no ill will and I hope you find what you need in your life and in your “Reasonable Force” Pro-Life ministry.

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  17. David, I’m a little confused. Margaret Sanger’s connection with Hitler does not invalidate her position – but my potentially having some sort of privileged upbringing invalidates mine? And my brother’s being my brother, or being an evangelical, invalidates his? I don’t get it. Basically it seems as if anything is reason to invalidate a position you don’t agree with – and nothing is reason to disqualify one that you do.
    I appreciate your permitting his comment out of moderation out of consideration for me…but the same factors which cause you to be dismissive of his very thoughtful post ought to cause you to dismiss me as well.

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  18. Hello Blest —
    I don’t have anything else to add on the subject of you or your brother’s evangelism concerning this topic and I do not have an interest in entertaining a Straw Man Argument:
    http://www-personal.umich.edu/~lilyth/strawman.html
    Others who may want more information are welcome to check out the links to your brothers’ blog I posted here and then compare his ideas there against the claims in his post here and then employ a third party research method to determine agenda from fact.
    I do wish you both the best.

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  19. David: I do not believe you here to have a genuine intellectual discussion about the issue raised in my post and the following comments.
    I’m sorry you feel that way, David. I believe all of my comments were relevant to your post and the comments here, and would have hoped that you might deal with the issues rather than ruling me ineligible for “intellectual discussion” by virtue of the faith that helps to shape my beliefs.
    Nevertheless, I certainly acknowledge your right to do whatever you will with your site and the discussions therein.
    Thank you for displaying my comment and for your sentiments. I likewise bear no ill feelings toward you and pray God’s rich blessings on you and the others who have commented here.
    (Re: blestwithsons- Yeah, I’m fond of her, too! She’s a fireball, ain’t she?)

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  20. Blessed with sons is a dumb bitch. The women Sanger describes didn’t have the choice of abstinence. If you could read the text your stuiped ass would know that. Women didn’t have control of there bodies during this time period. And you have no idea until your actually in that situation. So shut the hell up!

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  21. Being a single, young (22 year old), pregnant, woman myself I tend to look at this site with bias. The pregnancy was unplanned, and with all honesty- initially unwanted. I considered abortion and researched it. Topics surrounding it and education about it fascinate me now more than ever. I made the personal decision not to go through with that “easy way out.” I then tried for an adoption. Let me reiterate that I am single. I am not wealthy by any means and feel incredibly unprepared. The father is abusive and I no longer have any relation with him. He will not allow me to have an adoption, however, and I have come to a peace with what felt like a trap and impossibility at first and am 31 weeks along in good health.
    I understand this page and chat discussion is circling the topic of abortion. I found myself in a situation most women would secretly choose to terminate. I now know I am against aborting a life and consequence of my choice and responsibility. And yet I would never judge another girl if she decided another path.
    I simply can’t help but pose a question more along the lines of a woman’s right, not only to choose life or death for their unborn, but what kind of life to give to their newborn. I feel that has been stripped away from myself.
    My virginity was raped when I was 18 and luckily was not impregnated. It seems to me in that case I would ironically have no debate about the parental right to adopt, however, if that were to have been the case. I don’t believe my rapist would have come forward to admit and fight for his child.
    I am in no darkness about the history of the wire coat hanger. I am in no disillusionment about the difference between victim and survivor. And I have a strong sense of justice… Just-if-I’d = been saved.
    I just don’t understand why their is great debate about a woman’s right to choose if there is a law that chooses how she can and cannot provide or take away that life. Are we or aren’t we the ones naturally honored to execute that personal power?
    I want to give my daughter a whole family. One with stability, safety and provision. Where is my right to choose that when I could’ve gotten away with murder- whether by pill, vacuum, or wire coat hanger.

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  22. David, you’re insightful mind is a “turn-on.” I found this last question very provoking and hard to answer. I began to question myself and want an answer of my own.
    I then asked myself, “Are mothers more important than fetuses?”
    This answer, however, was a quick, “no” for me. So, I began to study the word, “important” and what value was.
    What would make an adult of more worth than an unborn life?
    Experience? Knowledge? Power? etc…
    What about one who merely has a chance of owning these things? Isn’t their potential a witness to those who do own them?
    I think value is something determined by the buyer.
    For me, my daughter was worth the price.
    She is not more important than me, nor am I more important than her. I think I proved those choices with my body in having sex and then in keeping the pregnancy.

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  23. Saving Private Soldier Sperm

    War not only ravages the body.  War savages the family.  War kills the future.  War assassinates the now.  A soldier’s widow was forced by the United States Military to not only fight for her right to her dead husband’s sperm,…

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