U.S. National Institutes of Health

Class 3: Rubella families as “moral pioneers”


The third class session focuses on how families demanded greater control over their pregnancies and increased medical, social, and educational support for children with disabilities. Two new areas of law, “wrongful birth” and “wrongful life” cases, developed out of the rubella epidemic. The readings and films prepare students to discuss medical ethics and legal history using specific examples.

  • Reagan, Leslie J. Dangerous Pregnancies: Mothers, Disabilities, and Abortion in Modern America. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2012. pp. 105–138
  • Hubbard, Ruth. “Abortion and Disability: Who Should and Who Should Not Inhabit the World?” In The Disability Studies Reader, edited by Lennard J. Davis. New York: Routledge, 2006. pp. 93–103
  • Guttmacher, Alan F., Frank Ayd Jr., and Richard D. Lamm (moderator). “Indications for a Therapeutic Abortion.” Concepts and controversies in modern medicine series video (31 mins.), U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare, Public Health Service, National Medical Audiovisual Center, 1969. http://resource.nlm.nih.gov/101096368
  • “Portrait of Dortha Jacobs Biggs holding her daughter, Lesli, ca. 1975.” In Rashes to Research. Bethesda, MD: National Library of Medicine, 2019.
  • Stix, Madeleine and Wayne Drash. “Mom at Center of ‘wrongful Birth’ Debate: If Lawmakers Cared, They Would Have Called.” Cypress, TX: CNN, April 4, 2017. Available online. https://www.cnn.com/2017/04/04/health/texas-wrongful-birth-dortha-lesli/index.html (accessed 5/22/2019)
  • “Someday... You Might Have a Baby! Don’t Risk Birth Defects from Rubella!” Oregon State Department of Public Health and March of Dimes, undated. http://resource.nlm.nih.gov/101439342

  1. How does Reagan use the term moral pioneer and what does she mean by it?
  2. Why do you agree or disagree with calling rubella mothers moral pioneers?
  3. During the rubella epidemic, many hospitals had so-called abortion committees to evaluate a woman’s request for a therapeutic abortion. What purpose did these committees serve and what were their limitations?
  4. On page 99, Hubbard explains the double-bind women find themselves in when confronted with a prenatal diagnosis. Do you think that rubella mothers faced a similar dilemma or was their dilemma different?
  5. What were the elements of “wrongful birth” and “wrongful life” cases? How did the courts adjudicate these claims?
  6. Why might a jury’s finding in a wrongful birth case not align with a judge’s finding on appeal? What factors made these cases particularly hard to evaluate?
  7. How do you see rubella mothers’ push for greater access to therapeutic abortions relating to their push for improved social, educational, and medical support for their children?
  8. Using specific examples from Reagan’s chapter, explain how a mother’s race and class status shaped her access to a therapeutic abortion. How does Dortha Jacobs Biggs’ case differ from the cases described in Reagan’s book?
  9. Do you think that doctors should always be obligated to disclose a possible fetal diagnosis to their patients? Why or why not?
  10. Why do you think that the Oregon State Department of Public Health and the March of Dimes used stork iconography in their poster? Is this effective or ineffective and why?