Thursday, January 13, 2005


If you're like me, you start your day by listening to that liberal Morning Edition on that liberal NPR. And if so, you probably heard the opinion piece on drug safety by Russell Roberts that was broadcast on Tuesday:

The truth is, there’s no such thing as a safe drug. Every drug has side effects. It’s only a matter of degree. And there’s usually a tradeoff between safety and effectiveness....

In this world of imperfect safety, why do we give the FDA the authority to make these choices for us? The FDA is the ultimate one size fits all solution. If arthritis makes my life a living hell, why can’t I decide to take on a greater risk of a heart attack? ...

...The world would be a healthier place if patients and their doctors were allowed to make their own decisions on what is too much risk and what is safe enough. Let the FDA continue to provide information about the risks of drugs. Let the people decide what we put into our bodies.

I couldn't help thinking about this editorial last night as I watched the last story on 60 Minutes -- a profile of the German singer Thomas Quasthoff.

Quasthoff is one of the most celebrated vocalists in the classical music world. He's also a victim of Thalidomide -- he has short, stubby legs and no real arms. Here's a picture of the body he goes through life with.

Yeah, he seemed happy on the 60 Minutes broadcast -- he's at the top of his field, and he even has a girlfriend now (though when she hugs him, he can't hug her back). He says he wouldn't trade his life now for the chance to have a normal body but no vocal talent. (He wasn't asked about having a normal body and talent.)

Russell Roberts says, Hey, all drugs have risks -- why let some government bureaucrat tell you what you can't take? But, of course, America largely avoided the worst effects of thalidomide because of a government bureaucrat, at a time when the drug's horrible side effects weren't generally acknowledged:

Food and Drug Administration medical officer Dr. Frances Oldham Kelsey refused approval of thalidomide for distribution in the United States, despite early news of the drug's success and pressure from its U.S. manufacturer, The Merrell Company. While the drug's effects on animals tested negative to malformation, Dr. Kelsey mistrusted the sleeping pill that did not cause sleepiness in animals.

She was not told that her suspicions were correct when, in November 1961, West Germany reported to the FDA that thalidomide had been associated with birth defects. Told instead was The Merrell Company, which had furnished nearly 1,100 doctors (almost 250 obstetricians and gynecologists) with samples of the drug. Disbelieving West German evidence, The Merrell Company wrote only a brief letter of warning to just 10 percent of the physicians to whom thalidomide was distributed. They were still hoping for the drug's FDA approval and promising prescription sales.

Thalidomide's danger to pregnant women was not made public in the United States until 1962, a year after it was recognized abroad.
The Washington Post broke the story about Dr. Kelsey's good judgment, and President Kennedy ordered a crash program to retrieve all samples of thalidomide. For her role in preventing thalidomide distribution, Dr. Kelsey received the President's Award for Distinguished Federal Civilian Service in 1962.

That, of course, was a long time ago.

Here's the Roberts editorial, from his Web site. Poke around there, or search for his name connected with "Cato" or "Hayek" or "Mises," and you'll determine what should be obvious -- that Roberts, the editorialist on the allegedly dogmatically liberal NPR, is a libertarian.

The mainstream media regularly seeks out libertarians as editorialists and expert commentators. The libertarian John Tierney writes regularly for The New York Times, and the libertarian John Stossel is one ABC's most popular news-magazine reporters. In the interests of fairness and balance, shouldn't these libertarians be balanced in the media by an equal number of Marxists? I don't mean liberals or social democrats -- I mean card-carrying commies. For every savant from the Cato Institute, shouldn't we have an expert from the CPUSA or the Workers' World Party? Shouldn't every editorial advocating the abolishment of regulatory bodies be offset by an editorial advocating the abolishment of capitalism? Why should we hear about radical economics from only one side?


By the way, here's another Web libertarian explaining why the FDA's refusal to approve thalidomide was bad government policy. I'm not joking.

(A more detailed history of thalidomide is here. We benefited from Dr. Kelsey's caution, but the modern drug approval process really began only in response to the thalidomide scare. That process isn't working the way it's supposed to, and people like Roberts want to esentially eliminate it altogether.)

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