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The Sterile Truth : ABC movie explores the impact of a 'fetal protection' policy

April 04, 1993|SUSAN KING | TIMES STAFF WRITER

To what extremes would you go to keep your job?

ABC's Monday night movie, "For Their Own Good," chronicles the horrors a group of women endured to keep their jobs. Inspired by a real event from the '80s, the drama stars Elizabeth Perkins ("Big") as Sally Thompson, an abused wife and mother of a young boy, who is one of the few women working in a small-town factory where hazardous materials are used. The company refuses to spend the money to clean up the factory. So it instates a "fetal-protection" policy that prevents women of childbearing years to work with hazardous materials. If the women don't want to lose their jobs, they must be sterilized.

Sally and her female co-workers are trapped. The area is economically depressed, their male co-workers don't care about their plight and the local lawyer tells them they can't fight the company. So Sally goes to New York and obtains the services of a feisty ACLU attorney (Laura San Giacomo) to file a sex-discrimination case against the company.

In 1990, the Supreme Court invalidated the fetal-protection policy and stated that American women needed protection from intrusive, discriminatory and unconstitutional job restrictions.

"For Their Own Good" is set in Texas and in New York City, but the old Los Angeles Herald Examiner building doubles for several locations. The presses have been transformed into a factory, and the newsroom subs for the ACLU office. Shooting is going slow this hot afternoon. It's more than 100 degrees in the building and the air conditioner has broken down. But San Giacomo ("sex, lies and videotape") and Perkins are eager to discuss the project, which marks their TV film debuts.

Neither actress had been familiar with the case. "In some of the research I did, I found some women were very compassionate to these women who had gone through this," San Giacomo says. "Some women couldn't understand it."

But San Giacomo does. "In these kinds of rural areas there are no choices, there are only decisions to make. If you have to decide between $1.15 an hour or hundreds of dollars a week to support your parents and your children, it is just a decision they have to make. It is not a choice. There may not be (any job) in the next town or the town after that. There are not a lot of options."

Perkins was appalled when she discovered companies were allowed to impose the policy on women. "I was really shocked this had been allowed to go on," she says angrily.

Though her character of Sally is uneducated, Perkins believes she's anything but stupid. "She is a woman caught in a depressing economic situation and one who saw no options at the time," Perkins explains. "It wasn't until later that she realized the injustice that had been placed on her. She fought it. It takes an enormous amount of courage to go up against the huge conglomerates. It is a courage I, personally, don't know if I would have."

Perkins never met with the woman on whom her character is loosely based. Writer-director Ed Kaplan didn't want her to. "I had spoken to her on the phone," Perkins says. "I read all of her interviews and wanted to meet her."

But, ultimately, she respected Kaplan's wishes. "He really felt he wanted me to make it my own," Perkins says. "Maybe it did make it more of my own. This particular story is really a conglomeration of several people's stories, so it is not really about one woman. It is about a series of women."

"For Their Own Good" had been in development for three years. Co-producer Phyllis Rossheim brought the idea to executive producers Jon Avnet and Jordan Kerner ("Fried Green Tomatoes").

"There were a number of reports of the real-life characters appearing on '60 Minutes' and '20/20,"' Kerner says. "'Phyllis got the rights to one of those people involved and a number of other people involved in the case. She brought it to us. What we had never done was chase down these type of stories. This was something that affected us all. It was so real."

That's the main reason Kaplan also was drawn to the project. "Generally, the movies I like to do are oriented around issues that spark my imagination," he says. "This one clearly talked about issues that have concerned me for a long time just in terms of the empowerment issue--women in government, the pro-choice issue."

Though Kaplan didn't actually go inside these factories, "I got inside the environment," he says. "I realized this was an incredible story to tell. I couldn't believe this story had passed me over this last decade."

The sterilized women, Kaplan found, never recovered from the trauma of the surgery. "These women couldn't get counseling before they made the decision and couldn't get counseling after they had the sterilization procedure," Kaplan says. "They were in this kind of void. There was a lot of aberrant behavior afterward. One woman started a collection of dolls. The dolls happened to be lifelike. She had a crib with a life-size doll of a boy--the baby she didn't have."

"For Their Own Good" airs Monday at 9 p.m. on ABC.

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