German measles, an innocuous childhood disease, produced so much anxiety not because its symptoms were serious, but because they weren't, Reagan said. "A woman might have it and have no symptoms. But if she caught the virus during pregnancy, it could harm the developing fetus."
Among the potential outcomes were miscarriage, infant death or serious birth defects, including deafness, blindness, heart malformations and mental retardation, she said. And few supports existed at that time to aid families in caring for or educating children with disabilities.
"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. "The epidemic frightened every pregnant woman in the country, and every woman who thought she might be, or might become, pregnant." Extending those fears to the husbands and families of those women meant a large part of society was affected.
For many families and doctors, there was no question that if they were facing serious birth defects, they should abort and try again, Reagan said. But getting a legal "therapeutic" abortion involved going through hospital review boards for permission, and that permission was hard to get.
Illegal abortionists also were difficult to find because of increasingly tough enforcement of anti-abortion laws, in place since the late 1800s, Reagan said. Even the safe practitioners who had operated for decades without attention from the law were being closed down during this period.
Before the epidemic, women who had had abortions had been portrayed often i
|Contact: Craig Chamberlain|
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign