John Turturro: An Illegal Abortion Killed My Grandmother
Decades before the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling, John Turturro’s maternal grandmother Rosa died as a result of an illegal abortion, a tragic event that sparked reverberations for the actor to this day.
“I lost my grandmother because she died during an illegal botched abortion,” Turturro tells Rolling Stone. “So that informs me on the whole history of abortion. And I was very interested in that [subject] because the death certificate says ‘manic depressive psychosis — contributory: exhaustion.’ It doesn’t say ‘botched abortion.’”
On June 24, just hours after the Supreme Court overturned the landmark decision that guaranteed pregnant women access to a procedure to terminate a pregnancy, Turturro touched on his own familial history with abortion during a conversation at the Nantucket Film Festival and expanded on the topic with Rolling Stone a week later.
“We have all suffered from women not being in charge of their own bodies — the pregnant women, first and foremost, but also their extended families,” he says. “The right to choose affects us all. A woman must have the right to plan her life as she sees fit. Abortion is a terribly difficult decision for anyone, but it is a personal one and needs to be protected. I wonder what my mother’s life would have been like if abortion had been legal and her mother had the support of a group such as Planned Parenthood. What would have happened had Rosa lived?”
His comments on the topic followed a reading from his latest screenplay, Howard Beach, at the festival, where Ben Stiller presented Turturro with the Compass Rose Award for Career Achievement. His frequent collaborator, Spike Lee, is executive producing Howard Beach, which depicts an interracial love story between a white man (Turturro) and a Black woman (Grammy-nomiated singer/songwriter Alice Smith) against the backdrop of racial tensions in 1980s New York City. Ozark’s Damian Young and Smith joined Turturro onstage to read from the never-before-revealed project.
During a discussion on his career, which has spanned from his first credit in Raging Bull in 1980 to this year’s The Batman, Turturro talked about how his Sicilian heritage, which he explored for the PBS series Finding Your Roots With Henry Louis Gates Jr., influences his work. “I’m considered Italian-American, right?” he explained. “But I grew up in a Black neighborhood and moved to a white neighborhood and I got brought back to Black public school. I’ve always been involved in stories that explore different roots.”
While delving into his own backstory, he learned the truth about his grandmother from his mother. He trawled through public records, but there was nothing on her death certificate that reflected the real story. In 1927, the Italian immigrant was pregnant with her seventh child, one that she could not afford to feed. Her sister convinced her to try something risky to end the pregnancy. “She made her a special drink, a combination of certain powerful herbs that would ‘take care of it,’” he recalls. “My grandmother went into septic shock that evening, on fire from the poison burning inside.”
The impact of his grandmother’s death on the family, including his 5-year-old mother, was sudden and harsh. “My mother lost her mother, her home, her family, her sense of safety and security, and most of her childhood,” he says. “On June 2nd, 1927, my mother was admitted to St. Joseph’s Female Orphan Asylum. Her younger brother went to the boys’ section of St. Joseph’s Asylum. Her older sister went to live at St. Germain’s Home, Peekskill. Her two older brothers were sent to St. John’s Home. One of them later absconded, then was brought into a shelter and sent back. The cause for admission: Destitution. Their baby brother remained at home and died when he was four.”
With Howard Beach, which is in development as an independently financed film, Turturro charts the intersection of race and poverty. The Do the Right Thing actor notes the throughline between Rosa’s experience and his parents’ financial struggles as lower-rung second-generation immigrants raising a family in Brooklyn and Howard Beach.
“I’ve always been interested in how women have been oppressed and had to navigate such hazardous terrain in order to have a life of their own,” he adds. “So I think that’s part of the connection.”
Ultimately, the Emmy-winning actor believes that art offers the best platform for changing hearts and minds. “I’ve done films with certain directors where you kind of knew [they] were actually touching something that people may be uncomfortable with, whether it’s race, misogyny, class,” says Turturro: “I’m not an actor who goes and talks about all the political things because I feel like I’m just a regular citizen like everybody else. But I think you can do things in your work that maybe could represent your point of view in the discussion.”