Brandishing a wire coat hanger, New York gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon took the podium at a rally against the nomination of Judge Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court earlier this month. Kavanaugh is thought to satisfy Donald Trump’s pledge to appoint justices who will vote to overturn Roe v. Wade. Nixon’s voice shook as she predicted that a newly conservative court would take the country back to a time when women — including her own mother — resorted to self-administered abortions with, yes, coat hangers, or to illegal and unlicensed practitioners to end their pregnancies.
“We must never, ever, ever, go back to a time when any woman feels she has to make this kind of a choice,” she said, raising the hanger high. “And this is why we must fight.”
A few days later, in Washington, Lois Frankel, a Democratic congresswoman from Florida, banged a wire hanger on the table as she warned that whether Roe is overturned completely or gradually chipped away over time it would mean a return to “the days of coat hanger medicine.”
But would it? Would a post-Roe world look like a pre-Roe world, or have changes in medicine, technology and culture since 1973 permanently changed the landscape? In the weeks since Kavanaugh’s nomination, abortion rights advocates have found themselves pondering those questions with new intensity. They agree that while the coat hanger is a powerful symbol it does not reflect the complexity of a possible next abortion chapter.
An America without a guarantee of legal abortion, they say, would be markedly different from an America before abortion became legal in the first place.
“This is not your mother’s 1973,” says Lynn Paltrow, founder and executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. “We’re not just going back, we’re going someplace new.”
Reversing Roe would not make abortion illegal everywhere at once, but states — or even Congress — could ban or further restrict it.
“The old risk was medical, the new risk is legal,” says Jamila Perritt, MD, an obstetrician and a fellow with Physicians for Reproductive Health in the Washington, D.C., area. “The old symbols, like coat hangers, back alleys, will be replaced by new symbols, like handcuffs and prison bars.”
Daniel Grossman, MD, a program director at the UCSF Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health, where he studies the effectiveness of telemedicine in reproductive health care, agrees: “I don’t think women are going to be dying right and left from the complications of unsafe abortion if Roe is overturned. There are workarounds now that were not available back in the 1960s. Which means we will see new obstacles to and punishments for” those workarounds. READ MORE