Thalidomide: insult added to injury

September 2, 2012 at 10:05 pm (capitalism, children, crime, Disability, drugs, Human rights, Jim D, media, profiteers, science, women)

“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thanks to the tenacity of then-editor Harold Evans and the paper’s proprietors, the truth came out, the drug was withdrawn and a compensation settlement of £28m was reached with the UK victims.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


  1. Alec said,

    On a significant level, I do have a problem with the blithe expectation that Grünenthal issue an apology. Setting aside continuity of corporate structure and ownership (family, I think), only one or two of the senior staff were alive at the time (and, of them, all are almost young enough to have been exposed to thalidomide in utero).

    The more someone apologizes for summat they had no conceivable role in, the less I feel they feel sorry.

    Furthermore, it was from the wreckage of this disaster which the inflexible demand from clinical trials arose; which have prevented similar disasters.

    This is not to say that corporate arrogance and hubris by Grünenthal and others led to warning signs – which had been noticed by an uncoordinated work force and academic community – being ignored, but it isn’t on the same scale of venality as the Ford Pinto Memo.

    Going back to my first and second paragraphs, an apology culture has developed in which either the s-word is assumed to wash away any previous wrong doing or demands for others to do so strike as less to do with wishing wrongs to be rectified as it is to extract ritual humiliation [of others, not the spiritually enriching process of Japanese businessmen wailing on the floor].

    As such, doubtless the Grünenthal board thought a simple utterance of the s-word would be sufficient whilst, at the back of their mind, was the awareness of the desire by some for humiliation in apologizing… hence their effort to present themselves as a wronged, hurt party (cf. please consider our silent shock).


  2. Robin Carmody said,

    It is very easy to forget, now, just how brave and radical and *democratic* (in the best sense) a paper the Sunday Times actually was before Murdoch and Andrew Neil turned it into a neoliberal propaganda sheet. The immediate pre-Murdoch moment of 1966-9 was probably the best time ever for the mainstream British press; the Mirror still selling five million a day, the Guardian established as a truly national liberal voice, the Times becoming less of an aristocratic house journal, the Mail struggling and even flirting with liberalism in a desperate effort to find some kind of identity …

    … and then came November 1969 and May 1971, and the beginning of the end for mass-market journalism.

  3. michael said,

    Dear anybody,
    My name is Corol ann Kirk I live at 16 Turton close, Brighton,BN2 5DA my home telephone number is 01273672802
    My mother died soon after I was born, my father a proud man brought me up on his own. When I was about ten years old the kids at school used to call me names, and when I asked my father questions he shrug his shoulders and say “Take no heed they don’t understand” At the age of about 25 years, I applied for compensation, from the Thalidomide Trust and they told me that because the doctors records no longer exist, I cant prove I’m a thalidomide child, My hands and feet are smaller than most, My father told me my mother was on thalidomide, I work 12 hours a day in an old peoples home and struggle on with no help from anyone, A friend told me to contact you in the hope that you can ask the right questions to the right people, I feel so let down by all this I’ve virtually given up all hope.
    Please if there’s anything you can do to help it would be appreciated
    Thankyou, corol kirk,

  4. Sherman said,

    Thanks for finally writing about >Thalidomide: insult added
    to injury | Shiraz Socialist <Liked it!

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