Earlier this week, Republican party leaders, drafting their party's official position on abortion, proposed language that would make history of the 40-year period since Roe v. Wade. They are calling for a "human life amendment" which, by extending the 14th Amendment to fetuses, would prohibit abortions entirely, even in cases of rape, incest, or to save the life of the mother.
Within short order, an image of a wire clothing hanger (much like the one above) appeared on the homepage of the Huffington Post. Soon, the Tumblr belonging to the magazine Newsweek followed suit, a bit less elegantly, converting the cursor of your mouse on their page into an image of a tiny coat hanger (which, as many people pointed out, was not even the right kind of hanger).
This simple tool is our shorthand for that earlier time, the time of illegal abortions. And if we're going to pull it out of the closet -- and, even more to the point, if the Republicans are going to have a platform that earnestly seeks to pull that legal regime out of its grave -- we can't do it flippantly. I'm sympathetic to those who believe that abortion is legalized murder, but to ban it outright would have victims too (especially, as would in all likelihood be the case, you do not simultaneously increase and ease access to contraceptives and sex ed). Who would those victims be? We need to know what the hanger means.
We all think we know what the hanger means: dangerous, illegal abortions. It is a tool of last resort, a hack of a household object, conjured out of desperation when nothing else would suffice. That alone is significant because the most basic point, as Reagan and other historians have shown over and over again, is that even in the age of illegal abortions, women still had abortions -- many, many abortions. Making something illegal doesn't make it disappear. Abortion, during the century of its criminalization, was common, though its prevalence varied with the generations.
Of course no official statistics were kept, but Reagan cites some late-19th-century doctors as estimating a rate of about two million abortions per year. Studies confirmed their prevalence: One, of some 10,000 working-class women who visited birth-control clinics in the late 1920s, found that 10 to 23 percent had had abortions. A smaller study at a clinic in the Bronx in the early 1930s found that 35 percent of women -- Catholics, Protestants, and Jews alike -- had had at least one abortion. And of course, because abortion occurred mostly on the black market, they were very dangerous: One estimate placed the annual death toll at 5,000 women.
The numbers point to another lesson that can be drawn from the period: Criminalizing abortion did not persuade Americans that abortion was morally wrong. Reagan reports a physician's observation of a "matter of fact attitude [among] women of all ages and nationalities and every social status." Reagan writes, "The illegality of abortion has hidden the existence of an unarticulated, alternative, popular morality, which supported women who had abortions. This popular ethic contradicted the law, the official attitude of the medical profession, and the teachings of some religions."