Elevate Difference

The Coat Hanger Project

Directed by Angie Young

Comprised of an impressive array of interviews, statistics, and visual demonstrations, The Coat Hanger Project is an informative documentary about the symbolism—and reality—of the coat hanger and its relationship to abortion. Circling back again and again to the coat hanger, the film weaves personal and political histories of abortion and reproductive justice in the United States and around the world.

The film’s strength is in the interviews, which range from SisterSong’s Loretta Ross and SPARK’s Paris Hatcher to pre-Roe v. Wade abortion providers, clinic escorts, lawyers, activists, hotline volunteers, members of Feminist Outlawz, and advocacy organization leaders. Director Angie Young also interviewed a number of women from divergent backgrounds who either personally had illegal abortions or knew loved ones who did—and not all survived.

Throughout the film’s many stories are sobering statistics: 60,000 - 80,000 women around the world die each year from illegal abortion complications, and upwards of five million suffer from temporary or permanent injury. Yet, fewer than one percent of legal abortions performed in the United States result in a major complication. Perhaps most enlightening, some of Young’s interviewees grew up outside of the U.S. and have location-specific stories that shed further light on abortion as a global issue.

The history of underground feminist abortion networks like JANE are also detailed with clarity and sensitivity. These stories are juxtaposed with modern legal cases outlawing or placing restrictions on abortion. South Dakota, which only had one abortion provider as of 2006, is an excellent case study in how government interference still limits women’s options post-Roe. Protest footage from both sides is added to support the activist angle, though like the rest of the film, the clips show a much more favorable example set by the pro-choice protesters.

One anonymous interview with a former female soldier is particularly poignant. Military hospitals do not offer abortion services to women serving in the U.S. military, nor do female soldiers have many options if stationed in countries without abortion services. After inducing her own abortion at home, the female soldier needed care from a military hospital. Sadly, it’s no surprise that her care and treatment was less than sympathetic.

From a technical perspective, the film sometimes leaves a bit to be desired. The interviews were apparently not always linear, which has lead to awkward fading between clips in an attempt to make cohesive sense of subjects’ stories. Some of this may have been unavoidable, but it’s unfortunate that Young was not able to better prepare her interview subjects or re-shoot key interviews. My DVD was also badly compressed, leading to a lot of pixilation. This issue could have easily been solved in post-production and can still be corrected for future copies of the film.

Maybe most interesting, the film highlights unusual—if anecdotal—discrepancies, such as the fact that in some states, feral cat rescue programs receive more funding than abortion services. Not to pit humans and animals against one another—especially since I’ve long been involved in animal advocacy—I found this to be one of the more illuminating examples of how lacking abortion services are across the United States.

Inspiring and rich with important history and contemporary facts and analysis, The Coat Hanger Project is informative whether you’re already familiar with trigger laws or always assumed those “no coat hangers” buttons were worn by anti-sweatshop activists.

Written by: Brittany Shoot, September 22nd 2009