The deadly coat-hanger abortion: It’s an image central to the pro-choice movement for 46 years, ever since Ms. Magazine published the crime scene photo of Geraldine Santoro, naked and dead in a pool of her own blood, after her lover abandoned her during a botched abortion.

Santoro hadn’t actually used a coat hanger, but that was one of the many methods women used in the days when abortion was widely illegal, leading to large numbers of deaths and injuries. Subsequently, the coat hanger became a symbol for the pro-choice movement.

These fears of women dying horribly from illegal abortion are ramping up again, as red states compete to pass the most draconian possible restrictions, with an eye toward overturning Roe v. Wade at the Supreme Court.

But while the coat-hanger abortion was a legitimate concern in the 1970s, the continued use of the symbol and the rhetoric around it – “women will die” was the feminist battle cry in response to Georgia’s new law banning abortion – is outdated. Even worse, it might be backfiring. Anti-choice forces, always ready with a sexist stereotype, are using these fears about women dying from illegal abortions to paint pro-choicers as “hysterical.”

It’s understandable that a lot of feminists have a cynical fear that many Americans can’t be moved to care about women’s happiness and autonomy. So it’s easier to focus on the loss of women’s bodies through actual death.

Thus, the coat-hanger argument: Hey, you may not believe women deserve equality, but if they die, who will be around to wipe the kids’ butts and vacuum the living room?

The abortion debate is, at its core, about sex, and a lot of Americans are still uneasy with the idea that women are sexual beings. You still hear rhetoric like Barack Obama’s in 2008, when he said he taught his daughters “about values and morals, but if they make a mistake, I don’t want them punished with a baby.” His implication was that non-procreative sex was immoral, a “mistake,” and the only area of debate was about how serious the punishment should be.

While coat-hanger argument is well-meaning, it sets the bar way too low. It gives conservatives the space to argue that it’s fine to police women’s private sexual behavior.

The coat-hanger argument is also cowardly. Lots of people are pro-choice not because they think sex is an unfortunate event that needs to be grimly managed, but because they believe sex is healthy and that people are better off if they can have sex for pleasure instead of just procreation. Rather than shying away from that central moral, social and philosophical argument and veering off into marginal issues like the death rate from illegal abortions, pro-choicers should boldly argue in favor of progressive sexual values.

Pro-choicers play into conseratives’ hands by harping on deaths from illegal abortions, which are relatively rare. Instead, pro-choicers should focus on a moral issue Americans largely agree about: freedom.

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