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More than 50 years before Zika hit the US, the rubella virus affected pregnancies

The rubella, or German measles, epidemic helped legalize abortion in the US

CNN  — 

More than half a century before the Zika virus grabbed international headlines and photos of newborns with abnormally small heads were splashed across our screens, a different outbreak that affected pregnancies fueled change in the United States.

It was an epidemic that predated the birth of Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who made waves recently when he said pregnant women infected with the Zika virus should not have the right to an abortion, even if there’s a significant chance their babies will be born with microcephaly.

It was an epidemic that helped legalize abortion, the very right Rubio fights against.

Rubella, or German measles, hit American soil with a vengeance between 1963 and 1965. An estimated 12.5 million people were infected, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Though symptoms were generally minor – a fever and rash – pregnant women who contracted the virus faced a harsh reality. If their babies survived, there was a chance they would be born with profound birth defects, including blindness, deafness, heart abnormalities and serious intellectual disabilities.

Previous scares from infectious diseases in the United States had been largely relegated to the poor and those living in tenements, historian Leslie J. Reagan wrote in her 2010 book, “Dangerous Pregnancies.” But this epidemic respected no boundaries and threw white middle-class married mothers into the frightening fray.

As a result, “the politics of disease took an unusual turn,” Reagan wrote. “Instead of looking for and fingering a nonwhite or other stigmatized group as the source of this contagious disease and aiming control measures at its members … a new politics of civil rights and protection of mothers and children developed.”

Fear and a fresh demand for rights

A reported 20,000 surviving babies were born with defects resulting from congenital rubella syndrome during the epidemic. Those who needed 24/7 care faced the possibility of a lifetime of institutionalization.

Back then, abortion was illegal in the United States, but that didn’t stop women from seeking the procedure, from reputable doctors or otherwise. This was true even before the German measles epidemic; the new fears attached to the virus only turned up the volume of those demanding reproductive rights and access.

About 11,250 women had therapeutic abortions or miscarriages during the epidemic, and rubella resulted in 2,100 neonatal deaths, according to the CDC.

Dr. Norman Gregg, the Australian ophthalmologist who years earlier discovered the link between rubella and congenital defects, was even quoted as saying in 1955 that he “would not allow the pregnancy to continue if the circumstances arose in my own family,” Reagan referenced in her book.

At the time, the leading medical school textbook, “Williams Obstetrics,” also “endorsed therapeutic abortion for maternal rubella in the first trimester when the risk of ‘defects’ was high ‘if the mother and her husband [did] not want to assume the obvious risks involved,’ ” Reagan wrote.

There were doctors who honored such recommendations and requests from patients. Women of means also had the option of flying to Mexico or England for the procedure. But not all women could count on or afford equal treatment. This was especially true for women living in states where abortion was criminalized and where, up until a US Supreme Court ruling in 1965, even birth control was illegal.