The German manufacturer of a notorious drug that caused thousands of babies to be born with shortened arms and legs, or no limbs at all, issued its first ever apology Friday -- 50 years after pulling the drug off the market.
Gruenenthal Group's chief executive said the company wanted to apologize to mothers who took [thalidomide] during the 1950s and 1960s and to their children who suffered congenital birth defects as a result.
"We ask for forgiveness that for nearly 50 years we didn't find a way of reaching out to you from human being to human being," Harald Stock said. "We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us."
The drug is a powerful sedative and was sold under the brand name Contergan in Germany. It was given to pregnant women mostly to combat morning sickness, but led to a wave of birth defects in Europe, Australia, Canada and Japan. Thalidomide was yanked from the market in 1961 and was also found to cause defects in the eyes, ears, heart, genitals and internal organs of developing babies.
By now, of course, those developing babies are middle-aged adults. They reacted as you might expect:
Freddie Astbury, of Liverpool, England, was born without arms or legs after his mother took thalidomide. The 52-year-old said the apology was years long overdue.
"It's a disgrace that it's taken them 50 years to apologize," said Astbury, of the Thalidomide U.K. agency, an advocacy group for survivors. "I'm gobsmacked (astounded)," he said. "For years, (Gruenenthal) have insisted they never did anything wrong and refused to talk to us."
[. . .]
A German victims group rejected the company's apology as too little, too late.
"The apology as such doesn't help us deal with our everyday life," said Ilonka Stebritz, a spokeswoman for the Association of Contergan Victims. "What we need are other things."
Stebritz said that the 1970 settlement in Germany led to the creation of a (EURO)150 million fund for some 3,000 German victims, but that with a normal life expectancy of 85 years the money wasn't enough. In many other countries, victims are still waiting for compensation from Gruenenthal or its local distributors.
In July, an Australian woman born without arms and legs after her mother took thalidomide reached a multimillion dollar settlement with the drug's British distributor. Gruenenthal refused to settle. The lawsuit was part of a class action and more than 100 other survivors expect to have their claims heard in the next year.
Attorneys for Lynette Rowe said in a statement released Saturday that Grunenthal's apology rang hollow.
"To suggest that its long silence before today ought to be put down to `silent shock' on its part is insulting nonsense," the statement reads. "For 50 years Grunenthal has been engaged in a calculated corporate strategy to avoid the moral, legal and financial consequences of its reckless and negligent actions of the 1950s and 1960s."
During the 1960s, the early American pro-choice movement exploited "hideously deformed" thalidomide victims as a justification for abortion. Fifty years later, society has still failed to fully respect the humanity of people with disabilities. I agree with victim advocates that this "apology" is woefully inadequate.