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Dangerous Pregnancies

Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities, and Abortion in Modern America

Leslie J. Reagan
Copyright Date: 2010
Edition: 1
Pages: 392
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  • Book Info
    Dangerous Pregnancies
    Book Description:

    Dangerous Pregnanciestells the largely forgotten story of the German measles epidemic of the early 1960s and how it created national anxiety about dying, disabled, and "dangerous" babies. This epidemic would ultimately transform abortion politics, produce new science, and help build two of the most enduring social movements of the late twentieth century--the reproductive rights and the disability rights movements. At most a minor rash and fever for women, German measles (also known as rubella), if contracted during pregnancy, could result in miscarriages, infant deaths, and serious birth defects in the newborn. Award-winning writer Leslie J. Reagan chronicles for the first time the discoveries and dilemmas of this disease in a book full of intimate stories--including riveting courtroom testimony, secret investigations of women and doctors for abortion, and startling media portraits of children with disabilities. In exploring a disease that changed America,Dangerous Pregnanciespowerfully illuminates social movements that still shape individual lives, pregnancy, medicine, law, and politics.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-94500-5
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. VII-VIII)
    (pp. IX-X)
    (pp. XI-XVI)
  5. INTRODUCTION Epidemics, Reproduction, and the Fear of Maternal Marking
    (pp. 1-21)

    When the german measles epidemic crossed the globe and hit the United States in 1963, women were terrified of catching it. For women themselves, German measles meant at most a minor rash and a fever. They worried, however, about contracting the disease during pregnancy, a situation that could cause miscarriages, infant deaths, or serious birth defects in their babies—including deafness, blindness, heart malformations, and mental retardation. Experts predicted that twenty-thousand “damaged” babies would be the result of the German measles epidemic of 1963–65.¹ The disease, which uniquely threatened pregnant women and the developing fetus, could not be prevented...

  6. ONE Observing Bodies
    (pp. 22-54)

    This chapter is about the discovery of a disease. As soon as I write that, I want to fulfill the expectation—mine and my readers, I assume—to give a date and name a person who discovered this disease. However, this disease was discovered many times because discovery of disease was an ongoing process; a discovery had to be researched and confirmed, questioned, and discovered again to be believed. Older histories of diseases and conditions begin by recognizing the person who identified, described, and named the disease. In this chapter I rethink the medical discoveries, the processes of the production...

  7. TWO Specter of Tragedy
    (pp. 55-104)

    In april 1964, the U.S. Public Health Service’s Communicable Disease Center announced that “a nationwide epidemic of German measles is now in progress” and advised women in the first three months of pregnancy to avoid the disease. Early CDC reports were contradictory, stressing both the danger to pregnant women and the relatively low risk of bearing deformed babies.¹ News reports, however, underscored the threat. If the disease was contracted in the first four to five weeks of pregnancy, “the danger of having an abnormal baby,” was 50 percent.² “Malformed,” “hopelessly deformed,” “abnormal,” “defective,” “dangerous”³—these were the words used to...

  8. THREE Wrongful Information
    (pp. 105-138)

    Women were “entitled” to therapeutic abortion when they contracted German measles in early pregnancy, according to one popular magazine; it was “justifiable” if the pregnant woman and her husband had decided upon it,Williams Obstetricsadvised doctors.¹ Yet, as many women discovered in the 1950s and 1960s, the decision whether to carry a possibly affected pregnancy to term or to have a therapeutic abortion was not clearly in their hands at all. Physicians refused to perform therapeutic abortions, their legality was uncertain, and hospitals designed policies to limit their number. An unknown number of women who knew they had contracted...

  9. FOUR Law Making and Law Breaking in an Epidemic
    (pp. 139-179)

    When mrs. elaine boettner went to cast her ballot in California’s June 1964 primary, she presented a problem. She was eligible and she wanted to vote, but she had discovered that morning that she had German measles. Informing the precinct officers of her situation, she waited while they consulted. The problem was so well known and self-evident that the newspaper report said nothing about why this disease had provoked a discussion at the voting station. Precinct workers at the Fullerton voting station and newspaper readers all knew that German measles could cause birth defects if caught by pregnant women. And...

  10. FIVE “If Unborn Babies Are Going to Be Protected”
    (pp. 180-220)

    Neither the media nor health authorities linked abortion to the development, licensing, and distribution of the German measles vaccine and the campaign to immunize the nation’s children. Yet they had been related in the medical and scientific imaginary of the disease from the time that the effects of maternal rubella were first understood in the 1940s. German measles was widely publicized and understood in the media through coverage of abortion law. Furthermore, the rubella vaccine was licensed in 1969, and a national vaccination campaign began precisely when the struggle over abortion law was reaching a peak in the streets, in...

  11. EPILOGUE From Anxiety to Rights
    (pp. 221-242)

    German measles, the epidemic, its effects on bodies, the anxieties it provoked, and the victory of a vaccine have all practically been forgotten. Yet the issues and dilemmas, struggles and hopes that arose with German measles and the damage it caused to developing fetuses are still with us, still animating private lives and popular and political cultures. The changes that this disease helped initiate continue to shape laws, medical practices, schools, social services, and social movements. From the time that physicians first understood the teratogenic effects of German measles in the 1940s, they envisioned a vaccine to solve the problems...

  12. NOTES
    (pp. 243-330)
    (pp. 331-352)
  14. INDEX
    (pp. 353-372)
  15. Back Matter
    (pp. 373-373)