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.”