BROOKE GLADSTONE: Another issue wedged open by Zika, as we heard earlier, is reproductive rights. This month, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights urged governments in Zika-affected countries to repeal their abortion bans. But this wouldn’t be the first time an epidemic has influenced the abortion debate. Leslie Reagan is professor of History, Medicine, Gender, Women’s Studies and Law at the University of Illinois, and she said it happened in the US 50 years ago. But it didn't happen right away. First, we had to learn the real threat posed by the omnipresent, seemingly harmless illness known as rubella or German measles.
LESLIE REAGAN: In 1941, it was an Australian physician with mothers who figured out that it caused cataracts, and then they kept investigating it, saw heart defects, deafness and a series of other physical defects and what they called “mental retardation,” intellectual impairment. And the babies could have all of these. So women who were educated, you know, and paid attention to health would try to avoid getting German measles or make sure they’ve had it. Then there was an epidemic in 1958 but really no publicity about it.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The publicity happened in the 1960s, when there was another epidemic. Why in the ‘60s and not in the ‘50s?
LESLIE REAGAN: The difference is the Thalidomide tragedy that many people may still remember with Sherri Finkbine and the babies who were born without arms and legs because of Thalidomide in pills and cough syrups, and it was mostly in Germany and England. Pictures of those babies were in newspapers, on television, and they were really presented as freaks, basket cases. People were terrified.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You mentioned Sherri Finkbine. Who was she?
LESLIE REAGAN: So Sherri Finkbine had taken some pills of her husband’s and then she had seen this material in a newspaper with the, quote, “deformed babies” and was very concerned. She had gone to a doctor. Her doctor felt she should have a therapeutic abortion, which was legal for certain cases; the doctor was ready to perform it. She and her husband wanted an abortion. And then she went to the press to warn other women and, once she did that, the press started investigating, found out who she was, which hospital it was. And that prompted questions, controversy, religious debate and the hospital and the doctors losing their nerve and refusing to do the abortion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And so, her right to an abortion for taking Thalidomide was the opening in which the whole argument over abortion in the cases of rubella opened up.
LESLIE REAGAN: And this is the middle of the Baby Boom. Every potentially pregnant woman in the country can see they could be in this situation. And in their mind, the picture they have is not a rubella baby, ‘cause there are no pictures. It is those Thalidomide babies. And that is what opens up the discussion and changes the representations of abortion in the media. And it was in the media quite a bit. The messages were, the result of abortion is certain death. That’s one.
Other messages, by the ‘50s, there's a Saturday Evening Post article on abortion that talks about the women who have abortions as “sick,” the kind of women who have bad relationships with their fathers, white women who choose to have relationships with, quote, “colored men,” the sexually deviant.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Getting back to Finkbine, who was educated and somebody that majority white America could identify with, do we know how the public felt about her?
LESLIE REAGAN: Well, Gallop did polls on it and over 50% of the public supported her and believed that she should have access to abortion. And then there is a big story that appears in Life Magazine in 1965, and the cover has a woman getting a blood test and that headline, “The Agony of Mothers About Their Unborn,” is over a huge two-page spread of two women in a hospital in bed, waiting for their abortions to be performed by, quote, “conscientious doctors.” This shows safe, legal abortions by doctors, in hospitals. They don't use the names of the doctors, they don’t say where it is, but there is one woman in this story – it’s Mrs. Stonebreaker - who gives her name. They report her to be Roman Catholic. She got German measles from her son. They warn women to stay away from children.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: That was the public health message around rubella, stay away from children?
LESLIE REAGAN: Yeah, avoid children, just as insulting as the current advice that's being given to women today.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: The advice given to women in the Zika-affected areas.
LESLIE REAGAN: Yes. It’s just that the federal government then could not possibly have given advice like, use birth control and don't get pregnant.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: It's interesting, in your book you discuss an installment of the Ladies’ Home Journal, “Tell Me, Doctor” column, which suggests that an abortion is a decision that belongs to the pregnant woman.
LESLIE REAGAN: In that story, she’s both given information that it's up to her to make the decision and she is in consultation with her husband and her doctor. Her doctor gives her information that says, it's only a 10% chance, and the doctor says, it's 90% likelihood the baby will be fine and, with those odds, I'm not willing to do an abortion but someone else might. So this is not really her choice.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm.
LESLIE REAGAN: This is a, a very mixed message, right?
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Mm-hmm. [AFFIRMATIVE]
LESLIE REAGAN: But it is, at the same time, educating everybody as to what German measles is and that they, in fact, might pressure doctors around this issue. People were able to start talking about it publicly, where they had been unable to do so for the last 70 years while it was illegal. And there are physicians who organized the leadership of the obstetrics and gynecology to sign on that they believe that the laws should change. This is only ’65 and by ’67, ‘68 you have the medical profession agreeing that there should be a repeal of the laws. It’s pretty amazing.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Which brings us back to Zika because you have the UN High Commissioner, and I'm gonna quote him, he says, “The advice of some governments to women to delay getting pregnant ignores the reality that many women and girls simply cannot exercise control over whether or when or under what circumstances they become pregnant, especially in an environment where sexual violence is so common,” He says that bans on abortion breach human rights treaties. And, and, of course, in most of the Zika-affected countries abortion is either illegal or mostly illegal.
In describing the history of the discussion here, you pointed to the big change that occurred when the emphasis moved from poor people and people of color to, you know, middle-class white model moms. The people who are currently susceptible to the Zika virus are south of the border and I just wonder whether that’s going to suppress the discussion in this country.
LESLIE REAGAN: Well, I think so far it’s sort of seen as they have no reproductive rights in those Catholic countries but we do here in the US. It’s not being said but I think you can read it that way. But we don't really have reproductive rights for everybody in this country. This was part of what led to Roe vs. Wade, is it varied depending on where you lived, what state, what county, which hospital you went to and by your income and by your race. And that’s why Roe vs. Wade was decided in the way that it was, is because of the inequality.
In some places, it, it is the same as it was. We now have people doing their own. We have some people in hospitals. And people could spend a lot of money to go to another state to get a safe abortion.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: I have to say that the impact of a rubella outbreak in the early 1960s came as a complete shock to me.
LESLIE REAGAN: And you would not have imagined, in a time when nobody was talking about abortion, when it was extremely stigmatized and women are in pearls and little tiny hats, they’re the ones who begin to talk about the need for abortion, and it leads to Roe vs. Wade.
Similarly, in Central America, South America, there's over a million abortions every year, just as there were in the US, and they’re illegal and it’s stigmatized. We don't know what’ll happen, and I’m very, very curious to see.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Leslie, thank you very much.
LESLIE REAGAN: You're welcome.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Leslie Reagan is professor at the University of Illinois and author of Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities and Abortion in Modern America.
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BOB GARFIELD: That’s it for this week’s show. On the Media is produced by Kimmie Regler, Meara Sharma, Alana Casonova-Burgess, Jesse Brenneman and Mythili Rao. We had more help from Dasha Lisitsina and David Conrad. And we bid a fond farewell to our intern, Alex Friedland.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jason!
BOB GARFIELD: Inside joke. And our show was edited - by Brooke. Our technical director is Jennifer Munson. Our engineers this week were Cayce Means and Casey Holford.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.