Ohio Drycleaners Advertise Pro-Life Views on their Wire Clothes Hangers; Nobody is Amused

PLUS! A brief and incomplete history of abortion in ancient times, because that's how I roll. With history.
Publish date:
December 11, 2012
abortion, women's health, reproductive justice, illegal abortion

According to a post yesterday on RH Reality Check, a drycleaning service in Cincinnati, Ohio has been using its wire hangers to advertise a particular political agenda. This would not be all that much of a problem, if not for the agenda in question.

Simply put, the business is using its hangers to advertise their anti-abortion views, by placing “Choose Life!” on the paper wrapper that accompanies every hanger on which finished drycleaning is delivered to their customers.

Unsurprisingly, many people are not pleased.

Induced abortion has been around ever since ancient women first figured out that a state of pregnancy would ultimately lead to a child. The earliest documented evidence of abortion techniques comes from an Egyptian papyrus dating to 1550 BCE, in a document listing various nonsurgical methods for contraception and abortion; the papyrus recommends “a plant-fiber tampon coated with a compound that included honey and crushed dates,” as well as acacia berries, as one means of ending a pregnancy.

Other nonsurgical methods can be traced through historical documents across cultures and continents. A Chinese text recording the abortions of royal concubines dates to 500 BCE, and folklore references to the use of mercury (which is, notably, extremely toxic) to induce abortion in China go back as far as 5000 BCE.

In Ancient Greece, pennyroyal would become a popular abortifacient, well known enough to even gain humorous mention in Aristophanes’ plays. The ancient Greeks were pretty prolific with their abortion techniques, with medical texts recommending herbal baths, bloodlettings, diuretics, fasting, heavy lifting and all manner of strenuous physical activity in order to end a pregnancy, including a particular method of jumping up and down such that the heels strike the buttocks with every effort, which the Greek physician Soranus dubbed the “Lacedaemonian Leap,” and which was even recommended to a pregnant prostitute by Hippocrates, the father of the Hippocratic oath.

Interestingly, the Christian bible says very little of abortion, except for a description in Numbers of a test for infidelity, in which a pregnant woman suspected of having been unfaithful to her husband would be made to drink “the water of bitterness that brings the curse” which will cause her “uterus [to] drop and [her] womb discharge.” If the pregnancy was a result of adultery, then the woman would experience an abortion. If the woman was faithful to her husband, the medicine would magically have no effect.

However, common surgical abortion is a relatively new phenomenon; although both Hippocrates and Soranus made reference to it, and to instruments that might be used in the process, they both also advise against the attempt, citing the risk of perforating an organ or causing other life-threatening complications.

Surgical efforts to end pregnancy did not become safe enough for regular use until German gynecologist Alfred Hegar invented Hegar’s dilator in 1879 -- these were sort of wand-looking tools made of metal, glass, or hard rubber, and were used to dilate the external os and thereby to access the uterus. These instruments are more often known as “sounds” today, and anyone who’s had an IUD inserted is familiar with them. This invention made possible the early surgical abortion technique known as dilation and curettage (or D&C).

Of course, women have also been attempting their own self-administered surgical abortions since long before Dr. Hegar ever peered thoughtfully at a cervix for the first time, usually by inserting some kind of pointed object into their own uterus, such as a wooden stick, a knitting needle, or... a wire clothes hanger.

The wire clothes hanger method was popular enough in pre-Roe v. Wade America that by the 1960s the simple household object became something of an icon for the pro-choice movement, representing as it did the sentiment that no pregnant woman should ever feel so desperate and so out of resources that she should think that unwinding a thick piece of wire and inserting it into her own body was her only remaining course of action.

But it also represents more than uniform desperation, as pointed out in an excellent piece in The Atlantic earlier this year:

That twisted piece of wire... was a hack, a tool repurposed because the proper one was not accessible. Safe abortions were there for those with the means to get them. But for those with less privilege, less money, fewer connections -- black, Latina, and lower-class whites including many Catholics -- there were the hacks.

Part of this was for the obvious reasons: The illegality of abortions drove up costs, and those with more means could pay for better quality. [...] Other times... privilege manifested itself in a knowledgeable network of well-off friends, friends who were able to recommend their own high-quality abortion providers.

Unfortunately for poorer women, sometimes their needs for abortions were even more desperate than those who had better access.

This is a reality that persists even today, in a nation where abortion is technically legal -- poor women who have the misfortune to live in an area without an abortion provider (as is the case for most women in this country who don’t live in or near an urban center) and who have no means to travel to one are hardly any better off than they would have been in the 1960s. Indeed, a recent study has found that abortion rates are actually higher in countries where the procedure is illegal -- likely a result of an associated lack of access to contraceptive options in those countries.

The Cincinnati drycleaners who came up with this cunning advertisement (apparently they have been doing it for years, so there is no case to be made that it was a recent mistake) probably think themselves cheeky and ironic, co-opting the pro-choice icon to promote their own ideology. While I respect an individual’s right to express their opinions -- even when I passionately disagree -- this reference is not clever or cute, but utterly despicable.

We’ll never know how many women have died as a result of self-administered and other unsafe abortions; current estimates suggest that every day, 219 women worldwide lose their lives to unsafe abortions. But I suppose to some pro-life advocates, the lives of those women are less valuable and less deserving of respect than the potential lives of the fetuses they carried.