Dangerous Pregnancies

Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities, and Abortion in Modern America, Leslie J. Reagan

                        Adding to the literature on epidemics and their propensity to highlight, challenge, and even change cultural belief, Leslie Reagan’s work on the rubella virus tells the story of the disease’s discovery, society’s reaction to it, the media’s interpretation of it, and its eventual eradication via a heroic vaccination campaign. Along the way, Reagan discusses the issues rubella, contemporarily known as “German measles,” brought to the forefront of American thought: abortion and more extensively women’s reproductive and medical rights, doctors’ rights, the perception and treatment of disabled individuals, the medical field’s susceptibility to national and state law, religious issues surrounding women’s health, and the racial and class distinctions evident in medical treatment. Most importantly, Reagan discusses how prenatal care became a woman’s issue and then a family issue. Reproduction and the health of a new generation of Americans became a matter of interest in every family and for the nation as a whole, and this concern manifested itself in the squabbling over abortion law and through the many pamphlets and distributable information and advice so popular in the period (mid-twentieth century America).

Francesca Bray (in Technology and Gender) and Leslie Reagan’s approaches are similar in that both work within the realm of gender history. The authors attempt to understand the ways in which women were expected to act within and contribute to their societies, who their authorities were, and the many ways in which women worked within the frameworks they were forced into. The differences in technique lie in what instrument the historians use to tell their story. Reagan analyzes a single event, or entity, the German measles epidemics. She describes the way in which this specific happening affected women’s political and moral control over their own bodies and those of their unborn children. Bray, in a disparate approach, evaluates the “technologies” of homebuilding, weaving, and reproduction, and the way that these instruments of social control created the societal structure in which women lived and worked. While Reagan’s is a history of change, Bray’s is one of relative stability. Reagan’s work focuses primarily on changing women’s health in twentieth century America, while Bray’s broader study of women’s experience in Imperial China highlights many different aspects of the women’s roles, as defined by neo-Confusion dogma concerning the proper hierarchy of the home (and state). Both approaches have their merit, and both emphasize different, but arguably equally important aspects of the historical female experience.

I have read very few historical works that address disability, and I was fascinated by the eugenicist rhetoric coating many responses, from the medical establishment and the media, to the rubella epidemics and their ramifications. Rubella provided an impetus for a national discussion about the criminality abortion, which was quite progressive, but it did so by bringing attention to the undesirability and embarrassment associated with disabled persons and the right for parents to eradicate these “catastrophes” from their families. Additionally, by framing these individuals as pathetic, in need of assistance, and even rendering them useful in the form of test subjects, reformers were able to draw enough attention to CRS victims’ plight to enact major changes in disability aid and education from the state. Like the doctor who made a circus show of premature infants in order to pay for their care, proponents of CRS victims used the perception of the disabled body as horrible and unfortunate to garner support for the very individuals they objectified. This is a frightening trend that I think says a lot about human nature, especially as pertains to the abnormal.

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