Hays, Hollywood and Hiding Abortion: Difficult Conversations On and Off Screen
On Friday, June 24, 2022, the US Supreme Court voted to overturn the constitutional right to an abortion. Five of the nine Justices of the Supreme Court voted in favour of reversing the 1973 landmark Roe v Wade ruling, leaving decisions on abortion laws up to individual states. Almost immediately, it was suggested that abortion will soon be illegal in thirteen states, leaving women across the South and Midwest without access to safe and sanitary healthcare.
Abortion is one of these topics that very rarely strays into the mainstream media. Even in 2022, it is something that remains whispered. Despite frank conversations on everything from mental health to gender identity being encouraged, this particular aspect of reproductive healthcare proves taboo. Even cinema – either through fictional narrative or documentary storytelling – a medium which often seeks to tackle hard-hitting subjects, has remained surprisingly mute.
This is odd when you think about the “glory days” of the studio system, in particular. According to a quote in Vanity Fair from an anonymous actress, abortions “were our birth control.” Of course, this was an era of Hollywood in which women had very little bodily autonomy as it was. Everything from their name to their hairline to the shape of their eyebrows was dictated by the studios who cast actresses in a certain “look” in order to appeal to the masses.
Owing to the difficulties and double standards for ageing actresses to secure roles, Bette Davis admitted in her biography, The Girl Who Walked Home Alone, that she had several abortions in order to be able to keep working. Having a child would have prevented her from being able to take on roles which saw Oscar nominations and box office takings pour in. Davis became a mother for the first time, aged 39.
More than this, studios were so obsessed with their most bankable stars avoiding scandals that could impact box office takings that budding starlets and established actresses alike were routinely shipped off for terminations. Your studio contract could contain penalties and clauses for those who had babies at the expense of getting a picture made. It has been confirmed that MGM Studios would fine actresses who became pregnant or take them to a “fixer” to ensure the pregnancy was terminated and – most importantly – that no scandal would hit the press.
Of course, a system like this had its fair share of tragedies. Jane Russell suffered a botched abortion that left her unable to have children. Reflecting on her experience, she said, “Afterwards, my own doctor said: ‘What butcher did this to you?’ I had to be taken to the hospital. I was so ill, I nearly died.” Rita Moreno, too, has spoken out about her “back street” abortion, having fallen pregnant to Marlon Brando. She told Variety, “The doctor didn’t do anything really, except make me bleed. In other words, he didn’t do it right. I didn’t know it then, but I could have died. What a mess. What a dreadful mess.” Others, such as The Bishop’s Wife star Loretta Young refused to have an abortion, instead being made to give their child up for adoption. She is alleged to have fallen pregnant from a fling with Clark Gable, and the studios were arguably more concerned about his image than hers.
With such a tangled web being woven behind the scenes, it is clear that Hollywood had no desire to reflect on its own behaviours. Films about abortion may – shock! scandal! – encourage women to think of it as an option. Or worse, it may expose the horrors of its own seedy practises.
But there were films being made about the subject, with the earliest dating back to 1916. Where Are My Children? was made in 1916 and co-directed by a woman, Lois Weber. It starred Tyrone Power, Snr, and – although it had mixed messages around birth control and bodily autonomy – it is regarded as the first film to discuss the topic so openly. It also proved a massive hit with cinemagoers and was inspired by the 1915 trial of birth control advocate, Margaret Sanger.
Men In White (1934) stars Clark Gable and was one of the last films to slip under the radar of the Hays Code. Although it doesn’t use the word “abortion” explicitly, it is clear what is going on here. Gable stars as a doctor who gets a young nurse pregnant and – after a botched procedure – falls perilously ill. Gable’s character attempts to save the young nurse but she ultimately dies. Unsurprisingly, it’s not positive messaging. Ultimately, the “fallen woman” is punished for her actions – men are never punished for having sex or getting someone pregnant, in the movies or in reality. Still, it is surprising to see abortion as the main plot point for a film in the 1930s.
The Hays Code (also known as the Motion Picture Production Code) soon put a stop to the notion of abortion being referred to in movies. As Time magazine noted, “The parameters of the code, which also regulated depictions of murder, adultery, miscegenation and the appearance of alcohol in films, led to characters who had abortions having unhappy endings, whereas characters who considered getting abortions and then decided against them had more positive outcomes.” This is why – from the mid-1930s to the mid-1950s – there are almost no films to be found (at least, in the Hollywood mainstream) dealing with the topic.
A Place in the Sun (1951) made a daring attempt at reviving the discussion. Monty Clift’s character gets Shelley Winters’ character pregnant and is forced into marrying her when she refuses an abortion. Again, though, it’s all the woman’s fault and it is she who must suffer the consequences. Alfie (1966) took an unusual stance on the subject – it is when Michael Caine’s titular character sees an aborted foetus that he realises how shallow and hollow his lifestyle has been up until this point. He resolves to amend his playboy ways and become a better person. For a cool 1960s film starring someone as equally cool as Caine, the messaging feels oddly evangelical and not in keeping with the free love revolution that was about to get underway.
The rise in popularity of television shows in the 1960s and 70s meant that debate and exploration transferred from the silver screen to the tube. The rules seemed to be less concrete around what could or could not be said and the advent of legal dramas made the topic ripe for picking. Hard hitting storylines regularly drew in viewers – and complaints – for shows such as All My Children, Another World and Maude.
The “big draw” of such storylines perhaps gave Hollywood more confidence. These were real issues and, in the wake of the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling, this was now a legally acceptable medical procedure. Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) really broke the mould when it featured not only a teen pregnancy but a happy ending for the young woman at the centre of it. Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character, Stacy, is actually able to continue her normal life without the threat of death or social exclusion. Dirty Dancing (1987) specifically featured a botched abortion for the character of Penny, with good girl Baby having to fetch her doctor father to ensure Penny survives. This storyline proved too controversial for some of the film’s backers, including skincare giants Clearasil, who withdrew their funding. The film did just fine without them.
Television took over again, with abortion storylines featuring in everything from teen dramas to family viewing; medical shows to cult viewing. Cinema really took a back seat on the issue, as long-form storytelling was perhaps seen as the more appropriate format to explore such a complex topic. Indeed, it would be almost three decades before another flurry of films appeared in which abortion was not just a sub-plot, but truly front and centre.
It feels like films such as Saint Frances, Never Rarely Sometimes Always and L’Évenement have come along at just the right time. Although all three were shot and wrapped up long before the US Supreme Court started ruminating over abortion rights, the fact that these films have been released in consecutive years since 2019 does seem eerily prescient. Both Never Rarely Sometimes Always and L’Évenement are directed by women; Saint Frances was written by a woman. These are crucial facts when it comes to exploring a (largely) female experience. The fear; the decisions; the recovery; the isolation. It’s all part of the process and, at it’s most bare, there’s nothing particularly cinematic about it.
And each tackles the subject from an entirely different standpoint. Saint Frances centres around Bridget, who starts nannying a young girl around the same time that she has her abortion. It never once shows her as wistful or regretful. This is important when it comes to representation. So often, it is seen as something that haunts a character, plunging them into despair or addiction. Writer Kelly O’Sullivan, who also played Bridget, told Time magazine, “I wanted to write a story where it’s a non-traumatic depiction of abortion. It’s ordinary and light and sometimes funny, and very realistic in its portrayal.”
Never Rarely Sometimes Always deals with a character named Autumn having to travel in order to receive an abortion without parental consent. Crossing state lines in order to undergo a medical procedure is something that, potentially, will become a frightening reality for many women. The film showcases the power of having a solid, judgement-free support network around you during the abortion process – when making the decision; when getting the procedure; the recovery time. Two very solid lead performances from Sidney Flanagan and Talia Ryder make this a very impactful film which doesn’t stray into lecturing “teen drama issue” territory.
L’Évenement, which won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival in 2021, is perhaps the most potent. It deals with the subject of abortion at a time when the procedure was illegal in France. Many American women may now be wondering how they, themselves, are transported back to the 1960s. Based on Annie Ernaux’s novel, the film underlines common themes such as social expectations, educational pressures and, in this particular instance, the legality of the procedure. A stunning central performance from Anamaria Vartolomei makes L’Évenement essential viewing.
So, where does the most recent ruling leave cinema? Is abortion going to be consigned, once again, to whispers and euphemisms? Or will we see documentaries, biopics and original screenplays about women risking it all to cross state lines? With growing pressures from conservative and religious groups, it may not be something that mainstream Hollywood wants to tackle right now. Indie or international writers and directors may well pick up this mantle instead.
Whether it be on a TV show, in a big Hollywood picture or in a small indie with subtitles, what is important is the discussion. Topics like abortion shouldn’t only be spoken about when something goes wrong or becomes il/legal. Access to comprehensive reproductive education should be available to all. Without it, there are going to many more lives unfolding with a narrative that the Hays code would be proud of.