Please Stop Using Coat Hangers to Protest Abortion Bans

You're not helping anyone and may be preventing people from learning about abortion pills!

Please Stop Using Coat Hangers to Protest Abortion Bans
Photo:TIMOTHY A. CLARY/AFP via Getty Images/Illustration by Jimmy Hasse (Getty Images)

Last week, the Kentucky legislature effectively ended legal abortion in the state by overriding the governor’s veto on a package of draconian restrictions. A group called Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights is organizing a day of action for Thursday April 21 and calling for volunteers to spread wire coat hangers with its fliers nationwide on what it is deeming “National Coat Hanger Day.” The group said its organizers in Louisville will stage “die-ins in bloody gowns that dramatize the nightmare this will mean for women.” These steps, they say, build toward a national week of action and a mass protest in May, in order to create “nonviolent resistance to STOP the Supreme Court from taking away women’s fundamental right to abortion.” If the Supreme Court overturns Roe v. Wade and, with it, the right to legal abortion, as it’s expected to do, the group says the result will be “female enslavement.”

Where to begin with this? Well, the most immediate issue is that none of this will help Kentuckians get abortions while lawsuits play out, and the theatrics could in fact take resources away from groups that exist for that purpose.

Something that will help people get abortion care is financially supporting the groups that have been working in the state for years to help actual people get medical care, said Meg Sasse Stern, the support fund director for Kentucky Health Justice Network, an abortion fund that’s been helping residents with financial and logistical support since 2013. “There is no need to come here to distract from the public health crisis we are combating. Trust us, and resource us with unrestricted funding,” Stern told Jezebel in a statement.

“Kentucky-based organizers have been quite clear they don’t want Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights descending on their communities, said Erin Matson, co-founder and executive director of Reproaction, a group that does organizing and opposition research to increase abortion access and advance reproductive justice. “I lead a national organization and guess what? National organizations shouldn’t come parachuting in, ever, with their analysis, solutions, and spotlights. Organizing that doesn’t follow the lead of the people impacted on the ground is a literal worst practice.”

The next issue is the coat hangers, which, as symbols, are outdated and harmful, because they suggest that all illegal abortions will be unsafe. Thanks to abortion pills, this is no longer true. You can self-manage an abortion safely and effectively with the correct guidelines on how to use medication abortion.

But Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights is doubling down on the wire hanger. The group appears to have brought a gigantic hanger to a rally on the steps of the Supreme Court in January for the 49th (and likely last) anniversary of Roe v. Wade and has called for “coat hangers everywhere” for this week. On a sign-up page for Louisville-based actions, they said they needed volunteers to tape fliers on thousands of wire coat hangers and said on a separate page that they’d spread thousands nationwide. The group attempts to explain why it’s using hangers on its website, saying:

Before abortion was legal, many women untwisted wire hangers and inserted them into their vaginas all the way up into their uterus in a desperate attempt to abort unwanted pregnancies. Countless women died in this way. Since then, the wire coat-hanger has become an international symbol to graphically illustrate the real-world life-and-death stakes of safe, legal abortion access to women.

Also since Roe: Abortion pills were approved by the FDA and are available online in all 50 states, if people know how to protect themselves.

“Please consider leaving the coat hangers in your closet, as they contribute to fear mongering narratives about ‘back alley’ abortions,” Stern of KHJN said. “Self-managed abortion is safe and effective when people have the right information, and support. People have been, and still are, managing their own pregnancy outcomes and that will continue, so let’s amplify safer methods for people who choose to self-manage care for whatever reason.” She referred people to KHJN’s Linktree with more information.

“Times have changed since the pre-Roe days: we now have abortion pills,” Matson told Jezebel via email. “With more than a 20-year track record of safety and efficacy, we know abortion pills work. Self-managed abortion with pills is safe, effective, and awesome. In this modern age, the primary risk of abortion bans is legal—criminalizing people, especially people of color and low-income people—not medical.” Many people were recently reminded of this fact with the news of Lizelle Herrera’s arrest and later dismissal of charges for allegedly self-managing her abortion.

Jezebel contacted Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights for comment on local and national advocates’ criticism of its use of coat hangers, possible diversion of financial support and attention from abortion funds, and whether it had done outreach to local reproductive rights and justice groups when planning its Kentucky actions. The group sent a lengthy unsigned response saying in part:

We have come to Louisville to draw attention to the shutdown of legal abortion in Kentucky and the harbinger this is to abortion rights nationwide. We’ve found, both here in Louisville and in many other cities and towns, that most people in this country do not even know about the current threat to abortion rights or all that the loss of this fundamental right would mean.
Is it really responsible to the lives of the millions and millions of people who will be directly negatively impacted by the loss of abortion rights, and is it really responsible journalism, to seek out and elevate what are objectively secondary differences among different forces who care about abortion rights as the focus of an article at this time when legal abortion is existentially threatened, and to give so short a deadline as to preclude any serious interview or discussion over what informs our approach?
As several of our initiators wrote in a recent open letter calling for unified action to defend abortion rights among all who care about justice, “History has shown the terrible cost paid by all people when those with divergent views were unable to rise above personal ego, petty disputes and sectarian squabbles at critical turning points. In contrast, let us unite all who can be unified from different perspectives and viewpoints, around the great unifying objective to stop the Supreme Court from decimating a long-established constitutional right that is central to millions of lives and society as a whole.”
Your questions also imply a zero sum game between the invaluable service of providing abortions or otherwise assisting those who need them (which some involved in have been actively involved in for many years) and the political fight that must be waged to defeat the fascist assault on this right. This is not true.”

Matson of Reproaction said: “To the new activists for abortion rights Rise Up 4 Abortion Rights is trying to recruit: Welcome! We’re so excited you are here. There are better ways to take action.”

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