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Epidemic played large role in shift of attitudes on abortion, author says
Date:6/25/2010

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. Before Roe v. Wade, there was German measles.

Ten years before the 1973 Supreme Court decision legalizing abortion which likely will be a focus of Senate confirmation questions for Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan next week German measles probably played the biggest part in starting to shift public attitudes about the criminal abortion laws, University of Illinois historian Leslie J. Reagan says in a new book.

Where abortion had been illegal and shameful, it became a subject of open public discussion and debate, Reagan said. In the midst of a German measles epidemic, the most "respectable" women married, middle-class, white mothers began to openly speak of their pregnancies, their concern about having a child with severe malformations, and their need for abortions, she said.

Joining them with vocal support for reforming the abortion laws was a diverse coalition difficult to imagine today including, for instance, the PTA, Republicans, unions, medical associations and a long list of Protestant churches.

But that history, like German measles (also known as rubella), has largely been forgotten, according to Reagan, a professor of history, of law and of women's studies.

"German measles ends up being very, very important for the earliest beginnings of the abortion-rights movement," she said. It also played an important role in the movement for disability rights, she said.

"(I)ts legacies have been written into the U.S. social infrastructure; into law, medicine, science, and social movements; and into contemporary politics," Reagan writes in "Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities and Abortion in Modern America" (University of California Press). "German measles became a catalyst for bringing about fundamental changes in the culture, public health and constitutional law."

Reagan traces the story from the discovery of the link between the disease and birth defects in 1941, throu
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Contact: Craig Chamberlain
cdchambe@illinois.edu
217-333-2894
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Source:Eurekalert

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