Race, rubella, and the long road to abortion reform

February 18, 2016

In 1964, women began requesting abortions at Atlanta’s Grady Memorial Hospital—despite the fact that abortion had been illegal in the state since the 1870s.

But the pregnant women had—or believed they had—what some called the “three-day measles”: rubella. A rash would blossom on their faces, travel down the body and then disappear.

Except when it didn’t.

And by 1964, the virus also known as “German measles” was blazing its infectious path throughout the nation and influenced state efforts—in Georgia and beyond—to reform “criminal abortion” laws that had banned pregnancy termination since the last century. Because for pregnant women, the impact of rubella was anything but fleeting. The mother-to-be could bounce back from the virus with no ill effects, but the fetus she carried could have birth defects that ranged from deafness and developmental delays. Or, as one study suggested, it could be born with microcephaly, a disorder in which infants have abnormally small heads and a host of chronic health conditions.


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