Politics & Policy

The Symbol of a Lie

Wire-hanger abortions pre-Roe are pure myth.

When I read that the DC Abortion Fund was thanking its donors with the gift of a “lovely” wire-hanger pendant, I assumed that this was going to be one of those made-up stories that make the grandmotherly rounds on Facebook but is not true. It is true, and the DC Abortion Fund is proud of itself. We as a people should not be.

But first a word of praise for the DC Abortion Fund: The group at least has the intellectual integrity to put the word “abortion” right there in the middle of its name — no NARAL-style “choice” euphemisms for this merry band of butchers. Valerie Solanas had her Society for Cutting Up Men, and nobody would be better pleased than I if Cecile Richards et al. embraced their true identity: The Society for Cutting Up Mankind.

Alec Torres noted this exercise in horrifyingly bad taste on the Corner, and the subsequent response on talk radio and elsewhere inspired the DC Abortion Fund to publish an apologia pro carnificibus titled “The Coat Hanger as a Symbol, and Why Abortion Access Matters,” which reads in part: “The coat hanger is a symbol of the reproductive justice movement because lack of access to abortion causes women to go to desperate lengths to terminate a pregnancy, similar to those undertaken in the pre–Roe vs. Wade era. At that time, consuming Lysol and household poisons was not uncommon to instigate abortion. Nor was inserting knitting needles, Coke bottles, and — yes — wire coat hangers into their cervices.”

That is untrue. It has long been known to be untrue. The wire hanger is indeed a powerful symbol — the symbol of a lie engineered with malice aforethought.

We have as a source no less an organization than the butchers’ union itself, Planned Parenthood, whose medical director, Dr. Mary Steichen Calderone, very helpfully compiled a report on deaths from illegal abortions in the pre-Roe era and found very few of them. Her report, “Illegal Abortion as a Public Health Problem,” published in the American Journal of Public Health in 1960, is interesting if grisly reading. In it we learn that in the pre-Roe era, the incidence of maternal deaths resulting from abortion was quite low, nothing like the tens of thousands of deaths in the wire-hanger mythology. “Abortion is no longer a dangerous procedure,” Dr. Calderone writes. “This applies not just to therapeutic abortions as performed in hospitals but also to so-called illegal abortions done by physicians.” And by Dr. Calderone’s estimate, “90 percent of all illegal abortions are presently being done by physicians. Call them what you will, abortionists or anything else, they are still physicians, trained as such; and many of them are in good standing in their communities. They must do a pretty good job if the death rate is as low as it is.” Bear in mind that this comes from an advocate of legal abortion at a time when abortion was broadly illegal.

Sociologist Nancy Howell Lee also undertook a study of the issue, published in 1969 as The Search for an Abortionist, and made similar findings. Contra the DC Abortion Fund, Lee found that self-induced abortions were rare.

Dr. Calderone noted that the rate of abortion-related maternal death had been declining steeply for some years despite the criminal status of most abortionists, and the general assumption was, and has been, that in an era of legal abortion such maternal deaths would all but disappear. That has not in fact been the case. As the Centers for Disease Control reports, there have been hundreds of abortion-related maternal deaths since 1972, the vast majority of them the result of legal rather than illegal abortions. (See table 25 here.) There have been millions upon millions of non-maternal abortion-related deaths, of course, the infliction of death being the entire point of abortion. There are two dead bodies at the end of a botched abortion, but one dead body at the end of a successful one. The mortality rate is as a purely mathematical matter the same in both cases: one per person.

The wire hanger, then, is not an accurate symbol of a bloody and regrettable past, but is rather precisely what the DC Abortion Fund offers it as: a fund-raising tool.

In this case, it is a grotesque fund-raising tool, but then abortion is a grotesque business. The wire hanger is a way to change the subject from the reality of abortion in these United States, which is that it exists mainly as a tool for enabling sexual convenience at the cost of a human life. While many abortion opponents, myself included, would not see the abolition of abortion except in cases associated with the unholy trinity — rape, incest, and situations in which an abortion is medically necessary to save a woman’s life — as a victory in principle, it would as a practical matter amount to the wholesale prohibition of abortion. Despite the fictions peddled by the ladies and gentlemen with wire-hanger pendants around their necks, the share of abortions performed for any plausible life-saving reason and in cases of pregnancy resulting from rape or incest is vanishingly small.

And the vast majority of late-term abortions as well are purely elective. If we include in the category of “elective” the elimination of children with birth defects, then practically all of those late-term abortions are elective. Of earlier-term abortions, practically all are purely elective. Most of those classified as being undertaken for medical reasons are not done for the health of the mother but, as with late-term abortions, to eliminate children with birth defects. Abortions resulting from rape and incest are extraordinarily rare.

You can see why the abortionists and their enablers would rather talk about wire hangers. The facts tell a very different story, and one that counsels a different outcome from what they would prefer.

I recently wrote a piece about Senator Rand Paul’s presidential aspirations, and one critic inquired as to why I did not write about his pro-life stance, which he took to be incompatible with the senator’s generally libertarian tendencies. Woman’s body, woman’s choice, right? That is, in my view, one of the all-time great instances of question-begging in our political discourse: If I thought there were one body involved, I’d be pro-choice. But there are two bodies involved — by any meaningful standard that is the case, which is why the pro-choice side of the argument is always forced to retreat into metaphysics, the so-called personhood question. It would be much more reasonable to ask how a person who believes in individual rights and individual liberties could be anything other than pro-life — which is to say, anything other than a full-throated advocate and defender of the first right. And though I believe that there are people who come to the pro-choice position in good faith, I am less sure about the people walking around with sterling silver hangers around their necks. We cannot build a humane society on a foundation of violence, and we cannot build an intelligent political discourse on a foundation of lies.

— Kevin D. Williamson is roving correspondent for National Review.


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