For decades, pro-choice advocates have used the coat hanger as a reminder of the horrors women endured before the Supreme Court legalized abortion in Roe v. Wade. Never has the symbol seemed more apt than in the past several years, as lawmakers launched an unprecedented assault on abortion rights and women's access to health care services, including family planning.
"It is the worst it's been since Roe, certainly," according to Linda Williams, CEO of Planned Parenthood Mar Monte, which serves Santa Clara County and parts of Northern California and Nevada. In the first six months of 2013, states passed 43 abortion restrictions, second only to 2011, when they passed 81 by midyear, according to the Guttmacher Institute, which tracks the laws.
The most recent example is from Texas, where legislators this month banned most abortions after 20 weeks, restricted the use of abortion drugs and added onerous requirements for clinics, including that they be outfitted like mini-hospitals, which the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists says is "unnecessary and unsupported by scientific evidence." Dozens of clinics that can't afford retrofits are expected to close.
The law, according to the New York Times, may force some women to seek the abortion drug misoprostol in Mexico and at flea markets in Texas, where it is freely available but doesn't come with the medical supervision and proper advice needed for safe use. Williams says this scenario is not quite as grisly as in the pre-Roe era. "It's better to use misoprostol than lye," she said. Amen to that.
Lucy Felix, a community educator, told the Times that women taking the pills without proper care are destined to be harmed: "Some of them will end up in the E.R.," she said.
Proponents of this new wave of restrictions claim they are trying to protect women's health. Lately they have cited the horrific case of Kermit Gosnell, the Philadelphia abortion doctor convicted of three counts of first-degree murder for delivering fetuses alive and then killing them. But what Gosnell did was already, absolutely, illegal.
Abortion rights supporters are horrified by the Gosnell case, too. And they fear women who can't get a safe, affordable abortion will turn to unlicensed and unscrupulous practitioners like this ghoul.
Williams is hopeful that these draconian regulations, accompanied in some cases by cuts to family planning and other services that can prevent pregnancies and enable women to deliver safely and care for their infants, are already creating a backlash. In the meantime, women are seriously at risk. Even in pro-choice states, access is limited, especially for poor women in rural areas.
"Women have always terminated pregnancies they didn't want, since the dawn of history, and they always will," Williams said. "Pushing abortion out of medical practice doesn't make it go away, it just makes it less safe." Which is the opposite of what lawmakers claim they want.