Rubella may have shifted abortion views

June 23, 2010 at 8:48 PM
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URBANA-CHAMPAIGN, Ill., June 23 (UPI) -- Ten years before 1973's Roe vs. Wade decision, German measles played a major part in shifting public attitudes toward abortion laws, a new book contends.

Writing on the history of abortion, women's attitudes toward pregnancy and societal fears about disability and its consequences, historian Leslie J. Reagan traced those issues within the context of rubella, its discovery and consequences of its impact in her book, "Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities and Abortion in Modern America."

Reagan, a historian at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, says German measles, especially during its 1963-65 epidemic, created so much anxiety in America because "a woman might have it and have no symptoms. But if she caught the virus during pregnancy, it could harm the developing fetus," resulting in infant death or birth defects including blindness, deafness, mental retardation or heart malformations.

"These were very frightening potential outcomes, and they shook the public's confidence that most babies would survive birth and be healthy and normal," Reagan said.

Abortion offered a solution for families and doctors, Reagan said, but getting a legal "therapeutic" abortion involved getting permission from hospital review, and that permission was hard to get.

"The early abortion-rights movement began at this time, with this concern for expectant mothers, and for families who appeared to be the perfect, idealized 1950s, 1960s family," she said. "To have the group that was seen as inherently respectable and moral talking about abortion really did change, I think, the picture of abortion -- from deviant to respectable -- and thus changed the public discussion."

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