Few today give much thought to the “R” in the MMR vaccine, which has been administered over five hundred million times since its introduction in the 1970s. Yet rubella, also known as German measles, was a disease of “national importance” in the 1960s, the result of an epidemic that lasted in the United States from 1963 to 1965 (1). In her fascinating study, Leslie Reagan tracks the significant role that rubella played in abortion politics, scientific research, and disability rights in the mid- to late twentieth century. As she notes, “an epidemic may act as a catalyst for social change” (5). Dangerous Pregnancies demonstrates that the outbreak of German measles and its particular threat to pregnant women and developing fetuses played a significant role in reproductive law and politics. Reagan approaches the history of rubella and the marketing of a vaccine from multiple angles, drawing on scholarship in disability history, the history of medicine, legal history, and women’s history. As a result, her narrative is rich both for its telling of the German measles epidemic and for its ability to synthesize a diverse body of relevant literature.
At the center of the story is the anxiety of potential birth defects brought on by exposure to a disease, which resulted in heightened tension between the rights of the mother and those of the fetus. Should a woman be allowed to have an abortion if she had been exposed to the German measles? This question haunted hospital abortion committees and lawmakers, particularly in the wake of the thalidomide tragedy. Though not readily available in the United States, thalidomide had been sold over the counter and in prescribed medicines such as sleep aids and cough syrups in close to fifty other countries. By 1961 it had become apparent that the drug had teratogenic effects when taken by a pregnant woman. Thousands of babies were born with shortened arms and legs as well as internal injuries. When pregnant American Sherri Finkbine realized that the drug she had taken as a sleep aid was thalidomide (which her husband had obtained in England), she sought a therapeutic abortion in the United States. As one of the first American women to speak openly and publicly about her agonizing attempt to get an abortion, she created a media buzz that triggered widespread debate about disability and abortion. Reagan notes that Finkbine, white, attractive, and a married mother [End Page 319] of four children, was an “ideal media representation of the American mother caught in a reproductive dilemma” (86). Unable to obtain an abortion in the United States, Finkbine traveled to Sweden in 1962 for a legal abortion, a decision that a majority of Americans (polled by Gallup) supported.
Thus, when the German measles epidemic arrived on US soil the following year, the American public was well primed to react with concern. CBS television noted that the German measles represented a far larger threat to unborn babies than did thalidomide. This anxiety was further heightened by the media portrayal of babies affected by thalidomide and rubella as monstrously disabled. By suggesting that babies affected by these conditions would live unrewarding lives, media coverage actually increased public support for abortion reform. “The uncomfortable truth is that the fear of disabilities opened up the first respectful conversation about abortion in the United States,” Reagan notes (222).
Reagan, author of the award-winning monograph When Abortion Was a Crime, once again demonstrates her skill at analyzing legal records and court cases to reveal how Americans experienced reproductive politics before Roe v. Wade. Dangerous Pregnancies builds on her earlier work to suggest how ideas about disability, disease, and the law heightened the anxiety of pregnant mothers. Perhaps most fascinating, she reveals how the mass immunization campaign carried out in 1970 resulted in widespread public acceptance of a vaccine whose sole purpose was not to protect one’s own health but that of unborn children. This focus on civic responsibility represented a triumph for those interested in preventing the spread of rubella, which by 2005 was...