1960s >> 1968 >> no-768-august-1968

Thalidomide Crime

Every so often capitalism commits one of its more colossal crimes against mankind. A recent example is that of the Thalidomide Babies.

The Sunday Times of 19 May discussed this matter fully under the headline of “The Thalidomide File”. The public first knew of this in 1961. Nine men from the firm of Chemie Grünenthal in the little town of Stolberg are at this moment on trial charged with placing on the market a drug which even when taken as instructed caused the human body an unacceptable degree of harm, for advertising the drug as completely safe when they could give no such guarantee, and for brushing aside and then deliberately suppressing the adverse reports from doctors that it caused those who took it to itch, shake, vomit and lose the power to stand. The charge is made that this same drug, which the sales department called “the apple of our eye” because it was so profitable, caused a large number of monstrously deformed babies. The trial is expected to last some ten years. It is obviously in the interests of the defendants to spin it out as much as possible so that some of the hot feeling may have died down.

The drug was exported to about 11 European, 7 African, 17 Asian and 11 American states. There are in Germany alone thousands of victims and roughly five thousand babies have been born there with appalling deformities. The discoverer of K17, as he named it, was a qualified chemist and doctor who had served at the Institute for Typhus and Virus Research at Cracow in Poland which was under the control of the German Army High Command during the war. His name was Dr. Heinrich Muckter. His precise role at the Institute was not clear but no charges were made against him at the Nuremberg Nazi doctors’ trial. We can anticipate that — especially in view of his past — many people will blame Muckter for this crime.

Socialists, however, whatever the outcome of the trial, will not give Muckter and his associates the sole blame for this incident in medical history. This does not mean we condone the actions of the men concerned.

Under capitalism some people are capable of doing anything for personal gain; others are not. Our view is that, given certain conditions, society will produce people with no scruples who will do whatever suits them no matter what the cost in human life and welfare.

The “business mind” is well illustrated by this extract from a letter written by the Sales Director of the firm which marketed Thalidomide to a sales manager in Essen :

    “We must realise above all else that such a quick rise in the turnover of a sedative must lead to certain apprehensions in the minds of doctors and chemists. Not all members of this clientele can keep their ethical attitudes within the limits of the market economy. There will certainly be doctors conscious of their responsibility, who in view of this trend, will start speaking about addiction.”

And a report from the Sales Office in 1960:

“Unfortunately, we are now receiving increasingly strong reports on the side of this preparation, as well as letters from doctors and chemists who want it put on prescription. From our side, everything must be done to avoid putting it on prescription, since already a substantial amount of our turnover comes from over-the-counter sales.”

Even the Sunday Times was prompted to ask “Was the fault that of society, of a set of attitudes to profit and the responsibility that it entails?” They use the word “society”. We would say rather “capitalist society”. Our answer to their question is: yes, it is the fault of society, capitalist society.

Capitalism is an obsolete system of society; it long ago outlived its usefulness. It fetters production; it distorts production so that hitherto unimaginable horrors like this become realities. The “set of attitudes to profit” is thus the reaction of men to the relations of production in which they find themselves. When men convert the privately owned means of production into the common property of all, classes will disappear. Wealth will be produced simply as products to be distributed according to wants and needs, and not as now as commodities to be exchanged on a market with a view to profit. Socialist production and distribution would mean that technical development would hold no threats to human welfare, as it does now, with its sales propaganda nuclear “deterrents” and so on.