The thalidomide victims still seeking compensation

The ongoing legal battles against Grunenthal matter, both for those affected by thalidomide and because of the precedent they set.

Today 185 people in Spain who suffered birth deformities due to Thalidomide are suing the German company Grunenthal, which developed the drug. These individuals have never received compensation from Grunenthal and are now seeking more than £175m in damages.

Although in 2012 Grunenthal apologised for the drug, which was sold as a cure for morning sickness in expectant mothers and is believed to have led to 10,000 babies being born with birth defects worldwide, it has always maintained that it has “no legal responsibility to compensate individuals affected.”

Meanwhile, in the UK, new research has suggested that a larger number of people may have been affected by Thalidomide than previously believed, and these individuals now argue they should receive compensation. The UK distributors of Thalidomide, Distillers (now owned by the drinks firm Diageo) agreed to compensate victims in 1973, and the Thalidomide Trust was set up. The problem now is that although the Thalidomide Trust has helped over 500 people affected, scientists believe the number of people affected by thalidomide is much greater.

Thalidomide was withdrawn as a morning sickness drug in 1961, but babies born with related birth defects in the 1950s are experiencing new and continuing health problems as they get older. And it is truly shocking that over fifty years on, hundreds of victims have still never received any compensation for their life-changing conditions. Grunenthal has always maintained it is not liable because it met contemporary industry standards for drug testing. It has argued that in the 1950s no one tested the effect of drugs on foetuses, a claim that people like Harold Evans, who was associated with the thalidomide investigations while editor of the Sunday Times, hotly dispute.

How Grunenthal and Diageo now respond to new compensation claims is of vital importance, not just for those seeking damages, but also because of the precedent it sets for others. We cannot let drug companies off the hook when their industry tests aren’t rigorous enough, and we must accept the risk that we still don’t know, and cannot know, what the long-term affects are of some of the drugs we use today. And then who, if not the drug companies, should pay when the drugs make things worse?

Thalidomide victims hold AVITE (Association of Thalidomide Victims in Spain) flags after the first day of a trial involving the German pharmaceutical company Gruenenthal, which produced the drug Thalidomide. Photo:Getty.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Must I unremember the day I wept over the long, slow suicide of a 27-year-old man?

At that time we did talk about the occupation of Ireland. Now we have to pretend we didn’t and it’s all the jolly UK and thank you, England for the peace process.

The misremembering of history interrupts these tales of my own squalid past. Very often I find myself wishing my memories were wrong, or that I’d forgotten more than I have. This would certainly be the case were I to be a politician, albeit a small-time one in big-time government. In the era of renunciations and sincere apologies, I would have to say sorry most of the time.

But I can’t. I can’t get past that clear day in May 1981, when the tangy cold spring air of a New York day got right inside me. Ambling home from another long, messy night in the Village, I was near 52nd when I saw people carrying a coffin.

“It’s not him, of course. It’s a fake coffin,” said a woman who saw the shock on my face. Maybe I was already crying. I knew and didn’t know but asked anyway.

“Yes. Bobby.”

Bobby Sands had died. Crowds were gathering with banners about Smashing Long Kesh and Smashing Thatcher.

The shock of it has never left me and God knows “martyrs” come two a penny now. Yet the idea that someone can starve themselves slowly to death for an idea is shocking. The idea that someone can let them do it, either “for” a United Ireland or “for” a United Kingdom, remains profoundly disturbing to me.

I need no lectures about what vile and murderous bastards the IRA were, or the numbers of innocents they killed. Nor about the smeary sentimentality of martyrdom itself. All I can say is that I had little idea of what “we” did in Ireland as long as I lived in England. A boy at school had run off to join the IRA. My mum said, “Well, he’s always been tapped, that one.”

We were kept ignorant. For some stupid reason, I did not think that Thatcher would let the hunger strikers die.

Their demands, remember, were the right not to wear prison uniform or to do prison work, rights to free association and education within the prison, one visit, one parcel, one letter a week. They wanted to be treated as political prisoners. Thatcher said Sands had no mandate. He was actually an MP, with more votes than she ever won in Finchley.

In New York that day, when we got to Third Avenue, there was anger and then solemnity. There were mumblings about what a death like that entailed . . . Mandela then instigated a hunger strike on Robben Island. There were protests in Milan and Ghent. French towns would name streets after Sands.

At that time, though, yes, we did talk about the occupation of Ireland. Now we have to pretend we didn’t and it’s all the jolly UK and thank you, England for the peace process.

So, must I unremember that day when I sat down on the pavement and wept over the long, slow suicide of a 27-year-old man? Let me know how to uncry all those tears shed for that terrible, terrible waste.

Suzanne Moore is a writer for the Guardian and the New Statesman. She writes the weekly “Telling Tales” column in the NS.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide