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TikTokers are sending hangers to the Supreme Court. Abortion rights activists say that goes too far.

"I wanted to the Supreme Court to see exactly what type of future they are creating," said one TikTok user who posted about sending the hangers.
 Abortion rights supporters protest outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday.
 Abortion rights supporters protest outside the Supreme Court on Tuesday.Valerie Plesch for NBC News

College student Katarina Nowack bought a pack of six wire hangers from Amazon this week and set the delivery address to the Supreme Court building.

Then she posted about it on TikTok, encouraging others to do the same.

Nowack said it's an act of protest in response to the leaked draft opinion indicating that the Supreme Court is likely to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark case that ensured the constitutional right to abortion. The court confirmed the authenticity of the leaked document.

"Essentially, an unwanted pregnancy would destroy my life," Nowack said. "I wanted the Supreme Court to see exactly what type of future they are creating."

Before abortion was legalized nationwide — when abortion medication regimens were unregulated and surgical abortions were unavailable — people died or were severely injured from using coat hangers and other dangerous methods to terminate unwanted pregnancies. Coat hangers have become a symbol of outdated, unsafe abortions performed before Roe v. Wade. The practice was used as recently as 2015, when a woman was charged with attempted murder, accused of trying to end her pregnancy using a coat hanger. She eventually pleaded guilty to a lesser charge of attempted procurement of a miscarriage. 

In Nowack's video, which had more than 400,000 views, she gift-wrapped the hangers with a message that read: "Tools that women will need for the future."

Since Monday, other TikTok users have encouraged their viewers to send "gifts" of hangers to the Supreme Court building. In the comments on a video with hundreds of thousands of views, several users suggested also sending knitting needles. Another commenter joked about sending wire hangers with "red jelly blobs for added effect."

A spokesperson for the Supreme Court did not immediately respond to request for comment Wednesday.

While sending coat hangers to protest abortion restrictions can be a strikingly visual political statement, many doctors and reproductive rights advocates have cautioned against using such violent imagery.

"Abortion is part of health care," said Dr. Nisha Verma, an obstetrician-gynecologist and family planning fellow with the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. "It's something that everyone should have access to. But when we use this imagery, it creates fear and it creates stigma that both discourages clinicians to provide abortion care and creates fear for the people that need to access it."

The coat hanger as a symbol of protest

Americans have been sending coat hangers to judges, lawmakers and other elected officials for years to protest abortion restrictions. Ahead of Justice Brett Kavanaugh's confirmation to the Supreme Court in 2018, Sen. Susan Collins's office was reported to have received 3,000 coat hangers. Collins, R-Maine, was a key swing vote who had also voted to confirm Justice Neil Gorsuch, an opponent of contraceptive coverage requirements under the Affordable Care Act.

Some protesters encouraged a similar stunt in September after Texas' anti-abortion cardiac activity law took effect, banning abortion as early as six weeks. Social media users encouraged one another to protest by sending coat hangers to Gov. Greg Abbott, who signed the bill into law.

"Sending the Supreme Court coat hangers won't directly cause anything, but it will show them and other lawmakers how many people are willing to fight for their rights," Nowack said.

By Tuesday afternoon, the Amazon storefront that Nowack bought the hangers from had been cleared of its stock.

"The coat hanger imagery is not symbolic. It is as real as it gets," Nowack said. "Unsafe abortions should carry with them stigmatizations of dangers, so showing people the truth will inevitably shock some people."

Nowack said she considers "doing things that cause direct concrete action" the most effective way to protest.

She said she's also donating to reproductive rights funds and plans to volunteer to provide travel assistance and ship abortion medication to people who need it. Nowack said she will also participate in the "Mother's Day Strike" next week and attend rallies protesting abortion restrictions.

What abortion rights activists recommend instead

Abortion access groups and reproductive rights organizations have called for an end to using sensational language and visuals in discussions of abortion.

K Agbebiyi, the Georgia policy and movement building director for Unite for Reproductive and Gender Equity, or URGE, raised concerns over the push to send coat hangers on TikTok.

"We need to be using imagery that empowers people who have had or are seeking an abortion so that they feel confident in whatever decision, not imagery that plays into harmful or offensive tropes."

K agbebiyi, georgia policy and movement building director for unite for reproductive and gender equity.

URGE and other organizations are moving away from phrases like "back alley abortions," they said in a recent TikTok video, because such language further stigmatizes and isolates people who have self-managed abortions using methods like medication.

"Abortion has a very nuanced and complicated history in the U.S., with access to abortion intersecting with other forms of oppression," Agbebiyi said. "We need to be using imagery that empowers people who have had or are seeking an abortion so that they feel confident in whatever decision, not imagery that plays into harmful or offensive tropes."

Managing misinformation

The Food and Drug Administration approved the use of mifepristone for medical abortions in 2000. The medication, which breaks down the lining of the uterus, is followed by misoprostol, which empties the uterus. The regimen, approved in 2016, is typically taken up to 11 weeks into a pregnancy.

Self-managed abortions using mifepristone and misoprostol are safe and effective.

During the coronavirus pandemic, the FDA lifted restrictions on mail-order abortion services, and last year it issued a rule that permanently allows patients to receive medical abortion materials by mail.

Although abortion is still legal in all 50 states, many people already live in a "post-Roe reality" because abortion access is so restricted, said Nina Reddy, the outreach coordinator for Access Reproductive Care — Southeast. Reactionary posts, even well-intentioned posts encouraging protest, may further spread misinformation rather than raise awareness of safe abortion options, Reddy said.

Local organizations are still able to coordinate travel assistance, fund abortions and ensure access to safe reproductive care despite restrictions. Reddy predicted that such groups will continue to provide assistance regardless of the Supreme Court's final decision.

"If the common narrative out there is that the first resort if Roe is gutted for a person to have an abortion is to harm themselves and have an unsafe abortion, then it's going to set us back years and years," Reddy said. "It's so important to get information out there."