“How do you wrestle with your conscience when the injustice you have perpetuated has destroyed the lives of children and left thousands of thalidomide victims still enduring pain and suffering, without adequate compensation?” – Sir Harold Evans, former Sunday Times editor, in today’s Observer.
After fifty years, Grünenthal, the company responsible for Thalidomide and the deformity and ruined lives of an estimated 10,000-to-20,000 children, has finally issued an apology. Of sorts.
The company has unveiled a statue and released a statement saying that it “regrets” the deformities and agony caused to babies born to mothers who took Thalidomide as a supposed treatment for morning sickness and other prgnancy-related difficulties, in the late 1950’s and early ’60’s.
But the company has not increased the meagre compensation it reluctantly provided to victims in 1968, nor admitted to the scandalous extent of its profit-driven criminal negligence when it released the drug in the ’50’s, without proper testing and with fraudulent claims about its safety. Exactly how much Grünenthal knew about the risks at the time of the drug’s launch is not clear: but for sure, they ignored early evidence of the terrible side-effects (including the wife of one of its own employees, who used Thalidomide and gave birth to a baby without ears before the drug was put on the market).
In Britain, the Distillers Company (now part of Diageo) distributed the drug with the approval of the Ministry of Health (then on very good terms with Distillers) until, eventually, the scandal was exposed by the Sunday Times. It was a dark chapter in the history of medicine but a fine example of courageous, campaigning journalism. The Sunday Times had to take on not just Distillers, but the legal establishment and the Tory government of the day. The attorney-general, backed by the House of Lords obtained an injunction preventing publication of the paper’s devastating findings, and the paper had to spend millions of pounds fighting for the right to publish. Eventually, thanks to the tenacity of then-editor Harold Evans and the paper’s proprietors, the truth came out, the drug was withdrawn and a compensation settlement of £28m was reached with the UK victims.
But the compensation in the UK and world-wide, remains thoroughly inadequate and the battle for justice for all the victims, continues. As Evans notes in his Observer piece:
“[D]ecency requires me to identify some heroes in the struggle for justice – the thalidomide victims, now in middle age, who continue to fight for others: Freddie Astbury, president of Thalidomide UK, who describes the CG apology without compensation as a disgrace; the Lords Jack Ashley and Alf Morris, who fought so hard for the victims in their lifetimes, and Labour’s minister of health, Mike O’Brien.”
I will leave to one side, for now, why it is that Evans is writing in the Observer rather than the paper he edited at the time of the scandal and which played such an honourable role back then, the Sunday Times…