‘Are we going to stand by and let these children come into the world?’: The impact of the ‘Thalidomide disaster’ in South Africa, 1960–1977

Susanne M. Klausen, Julie Parle

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

7 Scopus citations


Thalidomide is in many ways the archetypal drug of our era. Produced in the mid 1950s by the German firm Chemie-Gru¨nenthal GmbH, and sold directly by them or by licencees, it was one of a multitude of medications industrially created during the post-Second World War boom in synthetic drugs and aggressively marketed for multiple uses on a global scale. Most notoriously given to pregnant women suffering from morning sickness, without adequate testing for either toxicity or effectiveness, thalidomide was advertised as being ‘completely non-poisonous, completely safe’. Instead, in what became known as the ‘thalidomide scandal’, it caused malformations resulting in at least 10,000 children being born with severe disabilities. Previous research has shown that thalidomide was given out as samples, sold over the counter, or distributed via national health facilities in at least 46 countries around the world. It has become conventional wisdom that there are no histories to be told of thalidomide in South Africa, or in the continent more widely. We challenge this view. We focus specifically on South Africa, and describe how the country narrowly missed an ‘epidemic of deformity’ in the late 1950s and early 1960s. We then demonstrate that the international thalidomide scandal affected South Africa in at least two significant ways. First, it informed the passage of the Medicines and Related Substances Control Act (No. 101) of 1965, which established the Medicines Control Council of South Africa. Second, it played an important role in the debate over abortion law reform in the early 1970s, in particular regarding the desirability of a eugenic clause in South Africa’s first statutory law on abortion, the Abortion and Sterilisation Act (1975).

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)735-752
Number of pages18
JournalJournal of Southern African Studies
Issue number4
StatePublished - Jul 4 2015

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Geography, Planning and Development
  • Arts and Humanities (miscellaneous)
  • Sociology and Political Science


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