When Late Is As Bad As Never: The Thalidomide Apology

Such a nice apology to the Thalidomide victims! Why no applause?

Harald Stock, Chief Executive of the Gruenenthal Group, has issued the company’s first apology and acknowledgment of responsibility for its role in manufacturing Thalidomide, the drug taken by pregnant women for nausea in the ’50’s and ’60’s. The women who took the drug, primarily in Europe, gave birth to children with deformed limbs or no limbs at all.  Stock  apologized to the surviving mothers and to their children, saying,

“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. We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us.”

Wow, that’s some case of shock—50 years! And the shock affected not just the executives of the company that were around when the drug was distributed without adequate testing and so-called “flipper babies” were being born in the thousands, but two generations of subsequent Gruenenthal management too. Let’s translate this apology, shall we?

  • “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.” Translation:Now that we’ve followed the strategy our lawyers recommended to minimize our liability until most of the mothers have died off, we’re trying a public relations strategy so the last jury to deliberate on damages will know we’re really good people at heart.”
  • “We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us.” Translation: “Because we really think you’re that gullible.”

On the Ethics Alarms Apology Scale, this one is near the bottom, and there is no provision for lowering the rating of an apology for coming so late that a significant number of the victims of the act being apologized for are dead or senile. There should be. Even without such an adjustment, Stock’s self-serving mea culpa for his company is at best a# 7 [ “A forced or compelled apology in which the individual apologizing may not sincerely believe that an apology is appropriate, but chooses to show the victim or victims of the act inspiring it that the individual (or organization) responsible is humbling himself and being forced to admit wrongdoing by the society, the culture, legal authority, or an organization or group that the individual’s actions reflect upon or represent.”] and at worst a #10 [ “An insincere and dishonest apology designed to allow the wrongdoer to escape accountability cheaply, and to deceive his or her victims into forgiveness and trust, so they are vulnerable to future wrongdoing.”]

Personally, I vote 10.

And considering the half-century tactical delay, I’d say that takes it down to about a 13.

A note to critics of the U.S. civil justice system: the European victims have received a relative pittance as their damages in this epic tragedy, which only avoided the U.S. because of more stringent drug-testing here. The Gruenenthal Group never apologized, never admitted liability and never agreed to fair financial settlements with the victims because in Europe, unlike the U.S. system, its financial risk from lawsuits was severely limited. In the U.S., the company would have been facing A.H. Robbins-level damages (not that the Dalkon Shield litigation resulted in fair compensation either) and likely bankruptcy. That might have prompted a more timely apology, if not a more sincere one.

This cynical and outrageously tardy apology should not be accepted by anyone.


Facts: CBC

Graphic: thelynamgroup

Ethics Alarms attempts to give proper attribution and credit to all sources of facts, analysis and other assistance that go into its blog posts. If you are aware of one I missed, or believe your own work was used in any way without proper attribution, please contact me, Jack Marshall, at  jamproethics@verizon.net.


10 thoughts on “When Late Is As Bad As Never: The Thalidomide Apology

  1. DES.

    Everyone’s heard of Thalidomide. Few have heard of DiEthylStilbestrol (DES), a hormonal drug widely prescribed in the 50s, 60s and early 70s to prevent miscarriage.

    Not a single study has shown that it made any difference to miscarriage rates.

    But in XX foetuses, it is strongly correlated with Intersex conditions, and increased rates of cervical cancer. In XY foetuses, it strongly correlates with Intersex problems, and a 500-fold increase in Transsexuality.

    Prenatal exposure to diethylstilbestrol(DES) in males and gender-related disorders:results from a 5-year study Scott Kerlin. Proc. International Behavioral Development Symposium July 2005

    More than 150 network members (out of 500) with “confirmed” or “strongly suspected” prenatal DES exposure identified as either “transsexual, pre- or post-operative,” (90 members), “transgender” (48 members), “gender dysphoric” (17 members), or “intersex” (3 members).

    In this study, more than 150 individuals with confirmed or suspected prenatal DES exposure reported moderate to severe feelings of gender dysphoria across the lifespan. For most, these feelings had apparently been present since early childhood. The prevalence of a significant number of self-identified male-to-female transsexuals and transgendered individuals as well as some individuals who identify as intersex, androgynous, gay or bisexual males has inspired fresh investigation of historic theories about a possible biological/endocrine basis for psychosexual development in humans, including sexual orientation, core gender identity, and sexual identity (Benjamin, 1973; Cohen-Kettenis and Gooren, 1999; Diamond, 1965, 1996; Michel et al, 2001; Swaab, 2004).

    Informal surveys in Trans support groups show at least 10% of the Transsexual women in the USA were exposed to DES in foetu.

    See also http://www.cdc.gov/des/consumers/daughters/index.html

    Oddly enough, not only are there no funds for study of this, but funding sources of other activities dry up if anyone starts such a study. This is why nearly all of the studies of Intersex and Transsexuality in humans has been conducted outside the US.

    No compensation or apology has ever been offered – just lawsuits against anyone publicising this information. Despite the CDC’s data, my bet is that you’ve never heard of it, right? It’s not a secret, just… not publicised.

    • Not only have I heard of it, I have a funny story about it. A friend of mine was told by her mother that she had taken DES, so she entered a long-term study of women whose mothers had taken the drug. She was checked regularly, monitored, and of course had continuing anxiety about getting cancer. Anyway, about 10 years in, she mentioned the study she was in to her mother in passing, who was surprised to learn of it. “Why are you in it”? she asked. “Because you took DES, mom. They’re monitoring me for signs of cervical cancer. You told me you took it.”

      “I did, didn’t I? Well, I checked a while ago, I was wrong. I had it mixed up with something else.”

  2. Grünenthal has all kinds of skeletons in the closet. After the Nuremberg Trials were over, the republic of Germany was working at what was then termed “the societal integration of Nazi criminals”. In the 1950s Grünethal recruited several Nazi chemists and doctors who participated in experiments on humans in concentration camps. Namely Otto Ambros who was one the persons in charge for Auschwitz III.

    Now I don’t mean to imply that Grünenthal developed drugs on the basis of drugs that were tested or developed in Auschwitz – because other have implied that before and it has never been successfully proven…
    But anyhow, a company that recruits those kind people can have no moral or ethical compass at all…

        • Um….what? I can’t make that ironic at all. Now, if instead of drugs that gave people birth defects, Grünenthal’s drugs made people give up bigotry, now that would be ironic. What you did was attack the company while attempting to give yourself cover. That’s not irony.

          • The only thing that was supposed to be ironic about my statement, was that one sentence: I didn’t mean to imply […] has never been successfully proven… (so, although I and many others have thought this suspicious, too, no one could prove anything b.e.c.a.u.s.e. “the firm” has ways…)
            The rest is attested by history. No irony there. The company is totally attack-worthy. Again, I believe the accusations to be true, although I can’t prove them!

            Define irony: the use of words to convey a meaning that is the opposite! of its literal meaning.
            So when the sentence begins with: I don’t mean to imply bla bla bla –
            it acutally means “Yes, that’s totally what I’m implying.”

            What is your definition of irony?

            • Now we have different general allegations of evil. Well done.

              What you did was the classic, “I’m not saying it, other people are saying it” dodge. That’s different than using sarcasm to create irony. Now, if i’d responded to your post with “You are completely right. You clearly weren’t using words that claim that someone else said it so you’re innocent”, that would be irony.

  3. This is a cautionary tale that everyone should remember whenever anyone wants to “streamline” the drug development process and claims “they don’t have to do all this in Europe”.

    It is also interesting because only one of the two stereoisomers of thalidomide causes the birth defects, the inactive (medicinally) one. Enantiomerically pure thalidomide (theoretically) would have the anti-nausea effect without causing birth defects.

  4. Lateness wasn’t the problem here, it was that they played off the lateness as a virtue (“we were shocked at what we had done”) instead of a complicating factor.

    If the apology had been unequivocal. If the company actively started seeking out people to compensate, including heirs, and if the heirs couldn’t be found, they put money representative of each into a general fund to be given out to people that other companies failed to compensate. If this was all done without a budget (Give to who was hurt what they deserve, not a total amount you want to split up). If any overages were taken as secured credit on the company, including for people who couldn’t be found.

    If all that was done, I’d think the apology had some merit. As it is, I’d like to apologize to those spiders I killed when I was a kid. I didn’t think anything of them then, or in the 25 years since, but now I’m shocked that I didn’t realize it was wrong. Also, I will likely continue to kill spiders if nobody is looking.

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