The myth of the coat hanger abortion

The BBC typically ignores abortion scandals - Kermit Gosnell, who snipped babies’ spinal cords after performing late-term abortions and stored their remains in his ‘clinic’1, Planned Parenthood’s body parts trade2 and other scandals closer to home, swiftly forgotten3 - while respectfully covering protests against demands for restrictions provoked by such scandals.

Thus it was unsurprising that a TV programme marking the 50th anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act – already criticised for excluding the mother of a Down’s syndrome child in case she upset women who have aborted such babies4- would feature a “vehemently pro-life” woman and a “very angry” pro-life man, with a ratio of nine pro-abortion to two anti-abortion contributors - and extra input from Lord Steel, author of the Abortion Act, and key abortion campaigner Diane Munday.

However it also included a woman who attempted self abortion with a coat hanger5, thus inadvertently highlighting one of the greatest myths of the rewritten history of abortion.

Having written my own abortion history, By Their Fruits: Eugenics, Population Control, and the Abortion Campaign, it is interesting to see pro-abortionists brandishing coat hangers as a warning against restricting legal abortion. Now they are ubiquitous thanks to high street dry cleaners, but in the 1960s most abortions were done in hospital under 1930s case law.6

When in 1938 Britain established the Birkett inquiry into illegal abortion, wooden hangers were prized possessions; the one I inherited was covered with my uncle’s dire pencilled threats against any brother who dared to ‘borrow’ it. Most poor people hung their clothes on a nail on the door or wall, or on a chair; best outfits would be pressed not in a dry cleaner’s but under the mattress.

Illegal abortionists did use foreign objects, but as eminent Birkett witness, pathologist Sir Bernard Spilsbury insisted, the most effective method was injecting fluid into the womb – dangerous, and also difficult for women to perform on themselves7; even modern feminists have agreed8.

Spilsbury suggested that after trying allegedly abortifacient “remedies” that did not work, women would seek – or more often were taken to – an illegal abortionist9.This was no easy matter, unlike in the film Vera Drake, since owing to their tendency to kill and maim they usually kept on the move10.

As my book shows, such cases mainly involved young, naïve girls seduced by married men or married women who became pregnant when their husbands were away.

But poor women with large families were the ones that the eugenics/population control movement wanted to have abortions; from this movement the abortion campaign emerged, and its influence on the inquiry (chairman Sir Norman Birkett was a sympathiser) was such that their wild guesstimates of illegal abortion were accepted11,and these, together with their claims of women committing suicide because they could not obtain abortions would ease the passage of the Abortion Act12

The most striking feature of my research was how ready these campaigners were to lie, and how readily their lies were accepted. Some saw backstreet abortion as useful because it curbed the numbers of the “unfit”; some insisted that women’s regrets about abortion be ignored – regrets that the BBC programme, which ended with an appeal for the decriminalization of abortion, could not conceal13

Backstreet abortionists did not use coat hangers, and pro-abortion feminists did not brandish them in 1960s protest marches because there was no active feminist movement and no pro-abortion marches – only anti-abortion protests by nurses14. Over the years, however, the myth has bolstered the campaign for legal abortion to avoid a ‘return’ to something that never happened.

Legal abortion has done what its advocates always intended – made killing a way of life; and eight million babies have been airbrushed out of history. The BBC has not, to my knowledge, consulted my work on the subject. Never let the truth get in the way of brandishing a good symbol.

Ann Farmer lives in the UK. She is the author of By Their Fruits: Eugenics, Population Control, and the Abortion Campaign (CUAP, 2008); The Language of Life: Christians Facing the Abortion Challenge (St Pauls, 1995), and Prophets & Priests: the Hidden Face of the Birth Control Movement (St Austin Press, 2002).


(1) Cheryl Sullenger,  The Trial of Kermit Gosnell: The Shocking Details and What It Revealed about the Abortion Industry in America (World Ahead Press, 2017).

(2) The pro-life investigators who revealed the scandal by secretly filming Planned Parenthood operatives offering body parts for sale to representatives from commercial companies, were themselves prosecuted for publicising ‘private’ conversations; see: Micaiah Bilger, ‘FBI May Launch Criminal Investigation of Planned Parenthood for Selling Aborted Baby Parts’, LifeNews, September 29, 2017.

(3) ‘Marie Stopes sends 11 women to hospital in three months’, SPUC, August 14, 2017. The British Pregnancy Advisory Service, a heavily taxpayer-funded charity, is nevertheless campaigning for abortion to be completely decriminalised; BPAS CEO Ann Furedi has said that abortion is needed as a back-up for failed contraception

(4) “A pregnant woman was dropped from a BBC television debate on abortion after being told that she might upset others taking part. Former nurse Sarah Costerton was interviewed as a potential panellist for a new BBC2 programme called Abortion On Trial, hosted by presenter Anne Robinson. Mrs Costerton said programme-makers had seemed keen for her to participate but after being told her pregnancy might distress other participants or restrict what they felt able to say, she was informed that she would not be required” (Mail on Sunday, October 8, 2017); her exclusion was not mentioned in the programme. 

(5) Isabel Mohan, ‘Last Night on television’, Daily Telegraph, October 17, 2017.

(6) The Bourne ruling – the result of a test case by abortion advocate Aleck Bourne, later a founder member of the Society for the Protection of Unborn Children - opened a legal loophole that was allowed to remain. Mr Justice Macnaghten said that if a doctor believed the continuation of the pregnancy would make a woman a “physical or mental wreck”, he was operating for the purpose of “preserving the life of the mother”; although each case had to be tried on its own merits, rather than the doctor having to prove he was acting in good faith, the onus would be on the prosecution to prove he was not; the Abortion Act exempts the doctor from prosecution providing the abortion is conducted on specified grounds (Barbara Brookes, Abortion in England 1800-1967 (London: Croom Helm, 1988), p. 69).

(7) From his experience in Criminal and Coroners’ Courts, eminent witness Sir Bernard Spilsbury told the inquiry that he thought that alleged abortifacient ‘remedies’ could work in women who miscarried “easily”, although these were only a minority (Ministry of Health, papers on the Inter-Departmental Committee on Abortion (Birkett Enquiry), MH71-23 AC Paper 23).

(8) In describing menstrual extraction (a type of very early abortion not in existence in the 1930s) Chalker and Downer highlight the problems involved: “All of the women we spoke to agree that [it] cannot be done safely without a basic understanding of the location and function of a woman’s reproductive anatomy – the ovaries, egg (Fallopian) tubes, uterus, and cervix” (R. Chalker, C. Downer, A Woman’s Book of Choices: Abortion, Menstrual Extraction, RU-486 (New York: Four Walls Eight Windows, 1992), p. 132); including a detailed illustration they recommend: “Using a flashlight, goose-neck lamp, or other light source, a mirror, and a plastic speculum, you can easily see your cervix, the neck of the uterus that extends into the vagina” (Ibid, p. 136). Far from a solitary endeavour, the authors describe women’s groups carrying out menstrual extractions on each other. In the 1930s the use of tampons, requiring rudimentary anatomical knowledge, was rare; most poor women, according to my mother, used strips of cloth that were soaked, boiled and used again.

(9) Ministry of Health, papers on the Inter-Departmental Committee on Abortion (Birkett Enquiry) MH71-23 AC Paper 23.

(10) Call the Midwife author Jennifer Worth warned that Vera Drake promoted the idea that amateur abortion was straightforward and safe, and that countries where it was still illegal might copy the methods it showcased: “Vera’s method of procuring an abortion - flushing out the uterus with soap and water - was invariably fatal. One of the most severe pains a human being can endure is the sudden distension of a hollow organ. Inflating the uterus with liquid will induce primary obstetric shock, a dramatic fall in blood pressure, and heart failure. Thousands of women have died instantly from this abortion method. The idea that a woman who has just had half a pint of soapy water put into her uterus could then get back up on her feet and walk around is utterly implausible. And the idea that Drake had used this method successfully for 20 years is sheer fantasy; abortionists knew of the danger of the ‘flushing out’ technique, and it was known to have been tried. I was a district midwife in London in the 1950s and I certainly never saw a survivor of that method. ... If women in these countries see a film that depicts abortion as no more problematic than syringeing wax out of an ear, they might try it themselves, with fatal results” (Jennifer Worth, Guardian, January 6, 2005

(11) Huge numbers of abortionists would be required to account for the “not less than 50,000” illegal abortions per annum claimed by the Modern Churchmen’s Union, another offshoot of the Eugenics Society and supporter of legalizing abortion but also sterilization (Dr Douglas White, evidence for the MCU, February 24, 1938, Ministry of Health papers on the Inter-Departmental Committee on Abortion (Birkett Enquiry) MH71-25, AC Paper 106); giving evidence for ALRA, Dr Joan Malleson - instrumental in setting up the test case that opened a loophole in abortion law - put the number at 90,000 (October 13, 1937 (Ministry of Health papers on the Inter-Departmental Committee on Abortion (Birkett Enquiry) MH71-21 AC Paper 25).

(12) Despite lack of evidence, abortion advocate Dr David Owen coached his patients in how to obtain an abortion by claiming they were suicidal (Madeleine Simms, Keith Hindell, Abortion Law Reformed (London: Peter Owen, 1971), p. 183).

(13) “Despite its obvious bias, at times it was impossible for the true nature of abortion to be hidden. Several of the women described the horrific physical pain of a medical abortion, and having to see the dead baby. One participant said: ‘I wish someone had told me I would see the product of the pregnancy’, while another described passing the baby in the shower. The issues of gender selective abortion, the rights of the father, and abortion for disabilities such as Down’s syndrome were also raised” (SPUC, ‘Abortion on Trial?’ October 17, 2017).

(14) The Abortion Law Reform Association noted with concern the intensive letter-writing campaign by opponents of David Steel’s abortion Bill, and the publicity surrounding the delivery of a 530,000-name petition to Prime Minister Harold Wilson in Downing Street on a hospital trolley wheeled by nurses and other prominent anti-abortionists (Appendix II, Abortion Law Reform Association Minutes, September 15, 1966 (SA/ALR)).


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