Rashes, rights, and wrongs in the hospital and in the courtroom: German measles, abortion, and malpractice before Roe and Doe

Research output: Contribution to journalReview article

Abstract

When women contracted German measles in early pregnancy, they were “entitled” to therapeutic abortion, according to one 1959 magazine. Williams Obstetrics, the standard medical textbook, advised doctors that therapeutic abortion was “justifiable” in such cases if the pregnant woman and her husband decided upon it. German measles (also known as rubella) was first recognized as a teratogen by an Australian ophthalmologist in 1941. Exposure to the disease in early pregnancy could damage the developing fetus, causing deafness, blindness, heart defects, and mental retardation in newborns as well as miscarriages, stillbirths, and infant deaths. Aware of the disease's effects, thousands of pregnant women who contracted German measles avidly sought abortions. Yet, as many learned in the 1950s and 1960s, the decision to carry a possibly affected pregnancy or have a therapeutic abortion was not clearly in their hands at all. Physicians refused to perform therapeutic abortions, their legality was uncertain, and hospital policies were designed to limit their numbers. An unknown number of women who knew they had contracted the disease and understood the implications were denied therapeutic abortions, and later gave birth to severely harmed children. Some of them sued their doctors for malpractice. Barbara Stewart and Sandra Gleitman, with their husbands, brought two early cases, Gleitman v. Cosgrove (1967) and Stewart v. Long Island College Hospital (1970 and 1972).
Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)241-279
Number of pages39
JournalLaw and History Review
Volume27
Issue number2
DOIs
StatePublished - May 12 2009

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Law

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