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.
(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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