For women who lived in the United States before abortion was made legal, there are few images more evocative and distressing than the wire coat hanger. Featured on protest signs for decades, the hanger represents the desperation and horror of a time when, lacking all other options, women took matters into their own hands. A time, it seems, that we are reliving today.
This past September in Tennessee, 31-year-old Anna Yocca allegedly got into her bathtub and tried to end her pregnancy using a wire hanger. When the bleeding became out of control, her boyfriend drove her to a nearby hospital. In a just world, this news would provoke empathetic outrage – Yocca’s desperation and inability to obtain a safe abortion prove that we are shamefully failing women.
But we don’t live in a just world. We live in a world, in a country, where women who want to end their pregnancies are considered contemptible. And so Yocca, after her 24-week fetus was delivered, was arrested for first-degree attempted murder.
In an interview with local media, police sergeant Kyle Evans – displaying an incredible amount of anti-abortion bias – said that Yocca “wanted to kill the child” and that she “made very incriminating statements ... regarding wanting to end the child’s life”. (Apparently wanting an abortion is criminal.)
He added: “the whole time she was concerned for her health and her safety, and never gave any attention to the health and safety of the unborn child”. As if a woman is selfish for not wanting to bleed to death in her bathtub.
Cherisse A Scott, founder and CEO of SisterReach, a reproductive justice organization based in Memphis, said in a statement that Evans’ statements were “egregious and unprofessional”.
“Women are attempting to self-abort due to restrictive abortion and punitive fetal assault legislation. These acts of desperation will happen more frequently unless the Tennessee Legislature reconsiders its posture about both current and potential anti-abortion legislation”.
We’ve already seen what abortion restrictions are doing in Texas – a recent study showed that over 100,000 women in the state have attempted to self-abort. And we know that the restrictions are harsh in Tennessee as well – in addition to mandates like waiting periods, 96% of counties have no abortion provider and there are no providers in the state that perform abortions past 16 weeks of pregnancy.
Lynn Paltrow, executive director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, points out that this case and others shows that anti-choice rhetoric claiming women will not be punished if Roe is overturned is simply false. Women are already being punished. “Enforcement of anti-abortion laws don’t just affect doctors,” she says, “but women themselves.”
“We know whether abortion is legal or illegal, accessible or not, women will take the steps they believe are necessary for their lives and health,” Paltrow tells me.
That’s why, she says, we saw such a dramatic improvement in both maternal and child health after Roe. “Because women who needed and wanted abortions could get them early, and because women weren’t forced to carry pregnancies to term when they were unhealthy”, she says. “It averted a public health crisis”.
Before Roe v Wade legalized abortion, thousands of women died attempting to end their pregnancies – most of whom were poor or women of color. (90% of the women who died in New York City due to illegal abortions, for example, were black or Latina.) So we know where this road leads, and we know that when we arrest women like Yocca, it won’t make others less likely to self-abort – it will just make them less likely to seek help when they need it.
It’s unclear what will happen in Yocca’s case. Charges against a woman in Georgia who self-aborted were dropped because the state didn’t allow for the prosecution of women who try to end their pregnancies, and in 2012 the ninth circuit court found that an Idaho law that allowed for the arrest of a woman who self-aborted was unconstitutional. But in Indiana, Purvi Patel was sentenced to 20 years for what the state says was her illegal abortion. I hope that the law treats Yocca with more empathy and fairness than the Tennessee police have.
No matter what happens, though, let’s not forget that we have been here before. We know what restricting abortion does. We know how scared and desperate a woman needs to be to resort to sticking a household object up her vagina and into her uterus. I would like to write that we can’t afford to go back to a time where this was commonplace, but it seems as if we are already there.
This piece was amended on 15 December 2015 to clarify that thousands of women died as a result of illegal abortions before Roe v Wade. An earlier version of this piece said thousands died every year.
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