The 1930s called, they want their pregnancy discrimination back: Hollywood and Abortion

Hollywood studios once explicitly forbade actresses from carrying pregnancies. Recent suggestions that actresses owe their careers to abortion suggest that the similar pressures still exist implicitly.

Lately, there has been a flurry of Hollywood actresses extolling the virtues of “a woman’s right to choose”, and in particular how without having had an abortion, they would not be the success stories they are today. In August, Alyssa Milano revealed on her podcast Sorry not sorry that she had two abortions within a few months of each other in 1993. She particularly spoke of how, without those abortions, she would not be where she is today:

“I would not have my children…I would not have my career. I would not have the ability or platform I use to fight against oppression with all my heart… I would never have been free to be myself – and that’s what this fight is all about: freedom.”

Some months later, Jameela Jamil of The Good Place announced on Twitter that she had an abortion when she was young, and it was “the best decision I have ever made. Both for me, and for the baby I didn’t want, and wasn’t ready for, emotionally, psychologically and financially. So many children will end up in foster homes. So many lives ruined.” Jamil later clarified that her tweet “isn’t any diss at all to foster homes”. She rounded off her Twitterfest with the usual jabs at us “anti-choicers” and assured us all that, far from regretting her abortion, “I am in fact a happy, thriving multi millionaire, madly in love, with free time, good sleep and a wonderful career and life. But thanks for checking”.

Michelle Williams also threw her hat in the ring as she accepted her Golden Globe award for her role in Fosse/Verdon:

“I’ve tried my very best to live a life of my own making…and I wouldn’t have been able to do this without employing a woman’s right to choose”. She finishes her speech by urging women to vote in their own self-interests.

There’s a lot I could say about all this. The patronising idea that the many pro-life women who live in America and elsewhere deliberately vote against their own self-interests, the stigmatising attitudes towards foster families and the idea that for a baby to be killed before they’re born somehow benefits them would each merit an entire blog post on their own. However, there’s one common theme to all these famous, wealthy, successful actresses’ stories: the fact that they wouldn’t be where they are today, but for abortion.

I completely believe them. Hollywood is one of those industries where motherhood and pregnancy are poison to a woman’s career. These actresses, and others like them, publicly declared that their industry is so hostile to pregnancy that they would not have been able to achieve their dreams without eliminating their children. And how did Hollywood respond? With rapturous applause.

The irony is that since Charmed wrapped up, Milano has become recognised as a major proponent of the #MeToo movement (her efforts to further mobilise women in a #SexStrike were perhaps less successful). This movement was instrumental in exposing the disgusting treatment of women in many industries, with Hollywood the most prominent example. Thanks to brave women who finally spoke out, Bill Cosby is where he belongs – in jail – and Harvey Weinstein is standing trial for rape. Thanks in part to the #MeToo movement, women are beginning to stand up for themselves against sexual harassment and assault. However, there is still no push to end the discrimination women face in multiple industries when they are pregnant.

It’s not like this is a new problem. Hollywood has never tolerated pregnant stars. In fact, it was not uncommon for actresses to be forbidden from getting pregnant as part of their contracts with their studios, in order to preserve the “virginal” image of their stars. If an actress violated this term, an abortion was swiftly arranged. Most, if not all, today would agree that this is a terrible abuse and exploitation of women.

But how is that any different to the Hollywood of today? The requirement to have an abortion to make it as an actress may not be explicit, but that doesn’t make it any less real – the stories of Milano, Jamil and Williams demonstrate as much. The only difference is that instead of explicitly forcing women to have abortions, they are implicitly forced. Technically the woman “chooses” the abortion – hooray for choice! – but we all know the truth. She had no choice. Hollywood, like many other industries, has ingeniously managed to hide their exploitation of women under the very mantle of women’s rights.

I accept that many pro-choice people think that there is no “bad” reason to have an abortion. However, can we at least agree that there is such a thing as a bad reason to have to have an abortion? For example: if refusing to have an abortion will end your career. People may make apologies and excuses for Hollywood, saying that filming must proceed on schedule, and that studios can’t be expected to accommodate pregnant actresses – the exact same arguments that are made by and on behalf of firms that don’t want to make basic provisions like maternity leave. If we won’t let a bank, a law firm or a newspaper get away with that excuse, we shouldn’t let Hollywood get away with it either. However, no one dares to point out this hypocrisy, because to do so might suggest that maybe you’re not 100%, die hard, gung ho pro-choice.

I live in hope that, just as we now stare in shock at the horrific sexual abuse of women that took place in broad daylight for years in Hollywood, we will one day view this rampant pregnancy discrimination with disgust and shame. We can take inspiration from Loretta Young, who had a varied and successful career as an actress from 1917 to 1994, which included winning an Academy Award for Best Actress. Young was raped by her co-star Clark Gable in 1935 and became pregnant. Knowing she would be pressured into abortion by the studio, she kept the pregnancy secret and gave birth to a daughter, Judith. Judith was placed in an orphanage and nineteen months later was reunited with her mother, when Young adopted her own biological daughter. If Young was able to have such a successful acting career when women’s rights were far less advanced than they are now, surely it is not beyond us to ensure, in 2020, that no woman, actress or not, has to choose between her career and her child? That’s a cause we should all be able to get behind.

Muireann

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