U.S. National Institutes of Health

Class 2: Disability in the Debate about Rubella


This class session focuses on how images of disability circulating in American culture from the 1950s–1970s shaped pregnant women’s understanding of rubella’s risk. Writers in popular magazines, medical professionals, and mothers themselves publicized the consequences of maternal rubella exposure. In an era enamored with the healthy, nuclear family, rubella’s effects were especially stigmatized. At the close of the class, students are asked to consider how parents may have evaluated information available to them about rubella and congenital rubella syndrome.

  • Reagan, Leslie J. Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities, and Abortion in Modern America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2010, pp. 55–104.
  • Coleman, Lerita M. “Stigma: An Enigma Demystified.” In The Disability Studies Reader. New York: Routledge, 2006, pp. 141–52.
  • Liang, Bob. “German Measles and Pregnancy.” Life (June 4, 1965): 24–31.
  • Cochran, Gloria Grimes, and Winston Cochran. “Challenge for Habilitation: The Child with Congenital Rubella Syndrome.” Filmed 1977. DVD from 16 mm film reel, 16 min. Posted by National Library of Medicine, 2019. http://resource.nlm.nih.gov/101666877.
  • Lin-Fu, Jane. Rubella. Public Health Service Publication no. 2041. Washington, DC: U.S. Dept. of Health, Education, and Welfare, Public Health Service, Health Services and Mental Health Administration, Maternal and Child Health Service, 1970. http://resource.nlm.nih.gov/101641491.

  1. What were some of the medical consequences for maternal rubella exposure?
  2. What does stigma mean in the context of disability?
  3. What role did images of thalidomide babies play in the public conversation about rubella/German measles?
  4. What kinds of visuals of children with disabilities does the 1977 film, Challenge for Habilitation, make use of? How do these images compare to the pictures of “thalidomide babies” described by Reagan?
  5. How important do you think images are in the creation and perpetuation of stigma around disability?
  6. What kinds of stigma circulated during the 1964 rubella epidemic? What did parents fear when they learned of a maternal rubella diagnosis?
  7. On page 68, Reagan says that disability “threatened the class location of the entire family.” What evidence of this claim do you see in the Jet article, Lin-Fu, and Cochran sources?
  8. How might parents in the 1960s and 1970s have evaluated risk in relationship to maternal rubella exposure? Use specific examples from the Jet, Lin-Fu, Liang, and Cochran sources.
  9. How do the articles discussed in Reagan and the primary sources you read for class assign responsibility for disability and rubella infection? To what extent are mothers described as having agency?