While obtaining an abortion is getting more and more difficult for some women, finding out you are pregnant is still the easy part. It’s as simple as going to your drugstore. But pregnancy tests did not always come in an easy-to-use, sterile kit that provided almost immediate results.
It once required a rabbit.
It took the death of a floppy-eared, fluffy-tailed rabbit to announce to the world that I existed.
And to send me down a rabbit hole of guilt for years.
For much of my early childhood, I was burdened with feelings of culpability that somehow I was responsible for Peter Cottontail’s death. Convinced I had bunny blood on my hands, I shuddered when I learned that the only way my mother discovered she was pregnant with me was from a test that showed “The Rabbit Died.”
Was this why Bugs Bunny was always asking “What’s up doc?”
Question a millennial about what the expression “The Rabbit Died” means and you’ll likely get a look of confusion akin to asking them to dial a rotary phone.
There are likely a few generations of young women who don’t know that euphemism.
The Rabbit Test: Dying to Know If You’re Pregnant?
“The Rabbit Died” used to be a common phrase referring to a positive pregnancy test and originates from the first tests that were developed in the 1920s and used throughout the early 1960s.
The initial test involved a doctor injecting a woman’s urine into a female rabbit. If the woman was pregnant her urine would contain trace amounts of the hormone hCG which would put the animal in heat. To investigate the rabbit’s ovaries, scientists had to dissect and kill all of the rabbits that were injected with the urine.
As such, the rabbit died whether or not a woman was pregnant.
That Wascally Wabbit
The rabbit test wasn’t just cruel, it was bad science. It took 48 hours, it was expensive, and not always accurate. Sometimes multiple animals had to lose their lives if the test was inconclusive.
But for generations of mothers like mine hearing the doctor proclaim “the rabbit died” was magical words that a married woman couldn’t wait to hear.
My own mother Betty was so excited that as soon as she heard the news, she raced out of the doctor’s office to the first phone booth she spotted and called my father. As she fumbled to slide the dime into the pay phone, her heart was racing as she breathlessly told my father “The rabbit died.”
Only Your Doctor Knows For Sure
But for some women, these words could be anything but magical.
For many single women, this was neither an easy, nor joyful experience. A doctor’s appointment was necessary and could be daunting. Long before at-home pregnancy tests, relying on a physician’s testing was the only way to conclusively determine pregnancy.
For an unmarried woman who might receive a stern lecture along with the results, a trip to the doctor could be fraught with fear and anxiety.
Learning You Are Pregnant
Today it’s a personal matter.
For over four decades, women have relied on their own devices to determine if they were pregnant or not. With the ease of home pregnancy tests the discovery of being pregnant is as easy as peeing on a stick. No fuss no muss.
But even with the ease and availability of home pregnancy tests many women do not find out they are pregnant until long after six weeks, the cut-off time to terminate a pregnancy in many states now.
It certainly happened to me.
I was twelve weeks pregnant when I had an abortion and until one week before the procedure, I had no clue I was expecting. It was 1983 and as a single 27-year-old woman living in N.Y.C., the choice to terminate this unintended pregnancy had not been easy.
Determining I was pregnant was a struggle too.
According to the American Pregnancy Association, most women find out they are pregnant during their 4th to 7th week of pregnancy. While some women might discover she’s pregnant right away, others may take weeks to do the same.
And for some women like me with a serious eating disorder and body dysmorphia complicating the situation, it can take even longer.
So consumed was I with being out of shape that my perceptions of my body were themselves misshapen and malformed. The eventual recognition of my pregnancy took longer than it might have. That delay would have cost me my constitutional rights today in Florida and Texas.
Because eating disorders often lead to missed and irregular periods, my menstrual cycles were always irregular so to miss a full one or two though notable wasn’t alarming.
But as I moved into ten weeks, I worried. Confiding in a friend, she urged me to try a home pregnancy test.
Home pregnancy tests were still relatively new having first become available in 1977. A complicated procedure they were far from the pee-on-a-stick affair they are now.
You couldn’t miss their many ads in magazines like Glamour and Mademoiselle, though it never occurred to me that I might need one myself. The copy for e.p.t. was very upfront: “that ept would give you a chance, if pregnant to start taking care of yourself …or to consider the possibility of an early abortion.”
A game changer, it offered control over your body and your sexuality.
Eventually, my friend purchased the $10 pregnancy test for me at the neighborhood Duane Reade when I was too nervous to do so myself. The thought of taking that early at-home pregnancy test sent shivers down my spine.
It had as much to do with the results of the agonizing two-hour test as the test itself which was messy and confusing. There was measuring and mixing, split-second timing, and nerve-racking precision.
The kit itself looked like a Gilbert Chemistry Set that my brother might have gotten for his 10th birthday, with its vials, an angled mirror, a test tube, and red blood cells taken from a sheep. You peed in a plastic tray, navigated a series of test tube liquids and eyedropper, and then waited two hours for the liquid to possibly change color. The urine needed to be refrigerated, the test, could not be disturbed or put anywhere near a vibration.
It reeked of Junior year chemistry class with all its test tubes, eye droppers, and strange liquids derived from sheep. All the kit lacked was a Bunsen burner. In 1983 the simplicity of peeing on a stick was still 3 years off.
Despite the inconvenience of having to make a doctor’s appointment, many women recoiled from the prospect of collecting their own urine and analyzing it in a bathroom lab. It was easy to make mistakes.
The home pregnancy test became a blockbuster product only when it entered the Wand Era — with ingeniously designed sticks that collected urine at one end and gave results at the other. In 1988, Unilever introduced the first “one step” test, Clearblue Easy, so named for the blue stripe that slowly materialized to indicate pregnancy.
The magic wand transformed how we define pregnancy, it was simple, color-coded, and easy to read.
Now pregnancy started with a moment in your own bathroom, watching a little plastic window and waiting for a sign. It put it into the hands of the woman themselves, where it belongs.
What happens after the test, should be up to the woman too.
© Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream, 2023. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Sally Edelstein and Envisioning The American Dream with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.
This is quite fascinating, not to mention typically well researched, personalized and timely. The ads are real artifacts. Ironic that testing is so releatively easy in an era where reproductive rights are in such jeopardy.
I’m glad you found this of interest. The irony is not lost on me that now that women have agency in finding out they are pregnant, their options in how to proceed are in some cases taken out of their hands.