Why Young Feminists Are Sending Wire Coat Hangers to Susan Collins

Roe v. Wade is in danger. This is not a drill.

When Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy announced his retirement last week, he put an immediate target on reproductive rights. Kennedy, the longtime swing vote on the Court, was the crucial fifth vote recognizing a (limited) constitutional right to abortion. Trump has pledged to appoint anti-abortion conservatives in his place — and if he succeeds, the Supreme Court is almost certain to overturn Roe, allowing states to outlaw abortion.

We can’t stop Trump from nominating a right-wing zealot. That means our one, slim chance to save ourselves from a future of forced parenthood lies is to block anti-choice Supreme Court nominees in the Senate. If all 49 Democrats in the Senate vote against an anti-Roe nominee, we’d still need to flip at least one Republican. And that means the path to saving Roe depends on what passes for a moderate in the Republican party these days: Maine Senator Susan Collins.

Collins waffled throughout the weekend, saying she’d prefer a nominee who would “respect [the] precedent” of Roe, then refusing to commit to voting down a nominee hostile to abortion access. Women across the country immediately, organically responded by sending wire coat hangers to Senator Collins’ doorstep.

It’s a powerful reminder of just how high the stakes are. If we lose Roe, people won’t stop seeking abortions — but many more will die doing it.

Today, abortion is a far safer procedure than childbirth. But it wasn’t always that way. Before Roe, when abortion was only available in a handful of blue cities, hundreds of thousands of women every year sought illegal abortions or attempted to self-induce. Self-induced abortions, sometimes performed with wire coat hangers, were incredibly dangerous. In just one year, one New York hospital treated nearly 1,600 patients for botched abortions. A single Los Angeles hospital admitted 701 patients with septic abortions.

As feminists have pointed out before: “a pro-life world has a lot of dead women in it.”

If Roe falls, unconstitutional abortion bans in twenty-seven states could be revived. Even if abortion remains legal in a handful of states, the women who would most likely need to cross state lines for an abortion would be those least likely to have the financial resources to do so: nearly 70 percent of women who obtain abortions live below 200% of the federal poverty line.  

Overturning Roe would kill some of those women. In the years immediately after Roe — when abortion was technically legal, but not widely available — people went to extreme lengths to end unwanted pregnancies. One Louisiana abortion provider described a woman who “unraveled a wire coat hanger and used it to break her water,” another patient who soaked a cotton ball in turpentine and inserted it into their vagina, and another who injected turpentine into her abdomen with a syringe. He treated one patient who had shot themselves in the stomach to end a pregnancy.  

Nearly one in four U.S. women will have an abortion by the time they turn 45. Some will get abortions because their pregnancies put their lives at risk. Some will get abortions because they’re terrified of what an abusive partner or parent will do upon learning they’re pregnant. Some will get abortions because they simply can’t afford a(nother) child. (Women who carry an unwanted pregnancy to term are three times more likely than women who receive a sought-after abortion to be below the poverty level two years later.) And some will get abortions because they want to. We should all have the right to decide when — and whether — to become parents, to control our bodies, and to control the arc of our lives.

If we lose Roe, none of the reasons people seek abortion will change. People will still need abortions and people will still seek abortions. But many of them will have to risk their lives to get them.

Under pressure, Collins had hedged her bets again, making a flimsy statement on Sunday saying she’d oppose a nominee with an anti-Roe “activist agenda.” But when every potential SCOTUS nominee has been screened by the White House for hostility to legal abortion, that just isn’t good enough, so women are keeping the pressure on and the hangers coming.

Let’s make sure Susan Collins — and other potential swing votes like Alaska Senator Lisa Murkowski and Arizona Senator Jeff Flake — know just what they’re deciding when they vote on Trump’s nominee.

You can order a wire hanger here. Susan Collins’ Maine and D.C. office addresses here. You can find Lisa Murkowski’s office addresses here.

Image credit: Tyler LaRiviere

Sejal Singh is a columnist at Feministing, where she writes about educational equity, labor, and reproductive justice. Sejal is a Policy and Advocacy Coordinator for Know Your IX, a national campaign to end gender-based violence in schools, where she has led several state and federal campaigns for student survivors' civil rights. In the past, Sejal led LGBT rights campaigns for the Center for American Progress. Today, she is a student at Harvard Law School and a frequent speaker on LGBTQ rights and civil rights in schools.

Sejal Singh is a law student and columnist at Feministing, writing about educational equity, labor, and reproductive justice.

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