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Before abortion was legal in America, women had to resort to back-alley procedures—including many celebrities, whose carefully guarded images would be threatened if the public found out.
Before Roe v. Wade, American women were still getting abortions; the vast majority of them just weren't talking about it publicly.
During the golden age of Hollywood, it was a common practice to forbid their female stars from having children (or even from getting married without permission from the studio). But since contraception wasn't officially legally available to unmarried people until 1972, illegal abortion was extremely commonplace among the rich, famous, and heavily scrutinized. Gloria Swanson, Jane Russell, Joan Crawford and many others had back-alley abortions because everyone knew a career with a child was no career at all: Stars were expected to film six to ten movies a year, and that left no time for gestating.
Read more: Talking to My Grandma About Her 12 Abortions
Even stars that would have had their kids in wedlock either chose or were convinced to terminate the pregnancies; as Jane Ellen Wayne notes in The Golden Girls of MGM, "Married or not, the MGM girls maintained their virginal image." When Judy Garland got pregnant by first husband David Rose, for instance, her mother conspired with the studio to arrange for an abortion. Bullied by her mother and the powerful studio that controlled her career, Garland had no right to choose.
Some women from that era have opened up about their own experiences in subsequent years. In her autobiography, EGOT winner Rita Moreno recalls having an abortion at age 23, when she fell pregnant by a lover who didn't want to marry her. The man was Marlon Brando. "To my shock and horror, Marlon immediately arranged for an abortion," writes Moreno. She chose to have the abortion, she later said, partially because she didn't want the child to grow up without love and partially because her career would have been destroyed.
"Remember Ingrid Bergman?" says Moreno in The Choices We Made, a compilation of abortion stories edited by Angela Bonavoglia, referring to Bergman's affair with director Roberto Rossellini, which resulted in her getting pregnant and subsequently denounced on the Senate floor as "an instrument of evil." Moreno uses this story as an example of how children out of wedlock were perceived in the 50s. "She was ostracized. She went to live in Italy. She didn't do films for years. And this was a great big luminary. So if that happened to her, what would happen to me and the rest of us who got pregnant?" Moreno also felt there was a racial component to the way the public would perceive her. "That I was Puerto Rican made it even worse because Puerto Ricans were considered to be oversexed, dirty people," she says. "That hasn't changed a whole lot."
The man who performed Moreno's abortion left fetal tissue inside of her, which caused her to bleed profusely (the Boston Women's Health Collective states that before abortion was made legal, up to 5,000 women died a year from unsafe procedures). Moreno was admitted to Cedars Sinai Hospital and survived, but the doctors said she very easily could have died. Actress Polly Bergen bled for days after her illegal abortion, and stigma made her feel that her suffering was somehow warranted. "I'm sure there was part of me that thought I was supposed to die," she says in Bonavoglia's book. "I had done this terrible thing—I had had sex and gotten pregnant. The abortion added to it, but that was not the terrible thing."
I had done this terrible thing—I had had sex and gotten pregnant.
Bergen wasn't alone; in the years when abortion was forbidden and discussing it was taboo, many women struggled with feelings of shame surrounding the procedure. In 1922, Dorothy Parker was dating Charlie MacArthur, known about town as a fuckboy of the highest order. According to biographer Marion Meade, Parker found out MacArthur was cheating on her around the same time she found out she was pregnant. Dorothy had always wanted children, but this was hardly the most ideal of circumstances. After one-and-a-half trimesters, she decided to terminate the pregnancy. The doctor who administered the abortion, writes Meade in Bobbed Hair & Bathtub Gin: Writers Running Wild in the Twenties, "made certain she got a view of the fetus." Parker reportedly obsessed over the fetus' tiny hands and told everyone who would listen about it. Social pressures had forced her to abort a child she had wanted, and then the doctor who had performed the procedure had shamed her for it. Shortly thereafter, she made her first suicide attempt.
Ernest Hemingway, who disliked Parker because she didn't like bullfights, made fun of both her abortion and suicide attempt in a satirical poem. It's called "To The Tragic Poetess—Nothing in her life became her like her almost leaving it." You can read it here, but what matters now is that he included references to Parker's suicide attempt (which Hemingway thought was staged for attention), her abortion (and the tiny hands), and the "Jewish cheeks" of her "plump ass." Because Parker spoke openly about her abortion, writing stories that referenced it and opining that she had put "all [her] eggs in one bastard," she was mocked for it.
Debbie Reynolds, conversely, was traumatized after being denied an abortion. In 1962, she was pregnant with what would have been her third child when she sensed something was wrong. "There was no pain," she writes in her 1988 autobiography, Debbie. "But the baby had dropped about three inches. My stomach had gone down and had got very soft all of a sudden. There was no movement." Doctors later confirmed that the fetus had died. But because she was in her third trimester, Reynolds couldn't legally have it removed. Rather, she was forced to carry the dead fetus inside her for two more months and deliver a stillborn baby. "People would look at me and say, 'You look fabulous. What are you going to name the baby?'" she writes. "I'd say 'Well, I don't know.'" She miscarried in the same way two years later, but Reynolds insisted that she be given an abortion rather than carry the unviable pregnancy to term again. Her doctors agreed, even though they could have been prosecuted for it.
In 1971, French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir authored the "Manifesto of the 343," a document signed by 343 women, all of whom declared that they'd had illegal abortions in France. This is one of the first instances of a women telling their abortion stories as an explicitly political act. Among the signatories were de Beauvoir herself, Catherine Deneuve, Françoise Sagan, and all of Sartre's lovers.
The manifesto said, "Free abortion on demand is not the ultimate goal of women's plight. On the contrary, it is but the most basic necessity, without which the political fight cannot even begin." Charlie Hebdo called the signers the "343 Salopes." (Salopes roughly translates to "sluts," and the signatories are still referred to as the "343 Sluts" to this day.) Those sluts helped get abortion legalized in France in 1975. Inspired by the 343, Ms. included in their first issue a petition of their own. Titled "We Had Abortions," it was signed by women such as Nora Ephron, Anais Nin, and Billie Jean King.
One year later, Roe v. Wade made abortion legal in every state.
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