DANGEROUS PREGNANCIES: Mothers, Disabilities, and Abortion in Modern America. By Leslie J. Reagan. Berkeley: University of California Press. 2010.
In this year of extensive proposals to regulate reproduction, Dangerous Pregnancies could not be more needed. This book will jostle the national memory of how abortion became so important by providing details long forgotten and revealing how we came to see, on an unprecedented scale, the future of the nation in terms of protecting future children. While other scholars detail how abortion opponents deploy a rationale of protecting the unborn, Reagan shows culturally how this idea of future children became part of the national consciousness regardless of people’s opinion about abortion. She does so with an innovative combination of archival research on German measles and thalidomide, which resulted in grave birth defects, and perspectives borrowed from disabilities studies. The result is a book that explains how the abortion rights and disability rights movements shared an origin and shaped American law.
Reagan begins with women in the 1940s facing the new scare of German measles, aka rubella or CRS. In the introduction and first chapter, she charts the shift away from superstitious ideas of “maternal marking” (which supposed, for example, that looking at a misshapen infant would result in delivering a malformed baby) toward modern ideas that resulted in “standardization of knowledge across regions, languages, sciences and individuals” and, ultimately, “a single unifying name for [the] disease” (25). In this way she explains how mothers were “coworkers in the production of scientific knowledge” about the mysterious rash (23). Chapter two intensifies the focus on mothers as physicians’ collaborators with an in-depth analysis of the role Sherri Finkbine, host of TV’s Romper Room, played in readjusting popular understandings to present abortion as something that responsible, middle-class white mothers did. Coupled with astute readings of contemporary magazines, Reagan’s account of mothers like Finkbine is a sorely needed response to current scornful attitudes that suggest bourgeois women who were panicked by potential birth defects sought abortion because they wanted perfect babies.
Chapter three, which focuses on the legal “torts first articulated during the German measles epidemic” that “later came to be known as ‘wrongful birth’ and ‘wrongful life’ suits,” is a must-read for anyone concerned with recent “conscience clauses” that seek to indemnify doctors who withhold medical information due to their religious convictions and political beliefs about abortion (106). In excavating the details of pivotal legal battles in California (the Beilenson reform bill) and Minnesota (the case of Dr. Jane Hodgson), chapter four challenges conservative assumptions and popular knowledge to show that “the earliest efforts to change the nation’s criminal abortion laws came not out of sexual liberation but out of the anxieties and responsibilities felt by married mothers” (178). Chapter five demonstrates how immunization campaigns in the 1960s and 1970s did the cultural work of instilling across class and race a new responsibility for future children. In her epilogue, Reagan sketches the cultural logic about preventing damaged children through the “crack baby” scare of the 1980s and today’s prosecutions of women who suffer stillbirths to show how, yet again, the “work of women to convince other women to follow good health practices on behalf of their future children” is “too easily not only forgotten but also misrepresented” (234).
Powerfully moving, historically precise, and politically relevant, Dangerous Pregnancies combats the misogynist implications underlying currently proposed policies—implications that women terminate pregnancies without cognizance of their own physical and mental health or that of their fetus. Reagan’s impeccable scholarship shows why “the idea that pregnant women are uninterested in their own health and in the health of their developing fetuses and future children is wrongheaded” and historically impossible to defend (233).
Carol Mason, University of Kentucky