The wire hanger is indeed a powerful symbol — the symbol of a lie engineered with malice aforethought.
We have as a source no less an organization than the butchers’ union itself, Planned Parenthood, whose medical director, Dr. Mary Steichen Calderone, very helpfully compiled a report on deaths from illegal abortions in the pre-Roe era and found very few of them. Her report, “Illegal Abortion as a Public Health Problem,” published in the American Journal of Public Health in 1960, is interesting if grisly reading. In it we learn that in the pre-Roe era, the incidence of maternal deaths resulting from abortion was quite low, nothing like the tens of thousands of deaths in the wire-hanger mythology. “Abortion is no longer a dangerous procedure,” Dr. Calderone writes. “This applies not just to therapeutic abortions as performed in hospitals but also to so-called illegal abortions done by physicians.” And by Dr. Calderone’s estimate, “90 percent of all illegal abortions are presently being done by physicians. Call them what you will, abortionists or anything else, they are still physicians, trained as such; and many of them are in good standing in their communities. They must do a pretty good job if the death rate is as low as it is.” Bear in mind that this comes from an advocate of legal abortion at a time when abortion was broadly illegal.
Sociologist Nancy Howell Lee also undertook a study of the issue, published in 1969 as The Search for an Abortionist, and made similar findings. Contra the DC Abortion Fund, Lee found that self-induced abortions were rare.