Denying the Right to Experimental Drugs for Those with Terminal Illnesses
Yesterday's court decision denying a right for terminal patients to access unapproved medications was a setback to patient advocacy groups seeking untested drugs that might save their lives. The 8-2 decision by the full Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit overturned a previous ruling by its panel supporting the Abigail Alliance for Better Access to Developmental Drugs, a group inspired by the death of 21-year-old Abigail from cancer as she fought for experimental treatment.
No one wants to see someone die of a terrible disease, and the pain is worse still to ponder that a life-saving medicine might already be in existence. For example, many prostate cancer sufferers are seeking a promising drug called Provenge that has not yet been approved. And the FDA has not yet acted on its panel's recommendation last month to approve the osteoporosis drug Evista for breast cancer as well, despite studies suggesting its effectiveness against the cancer.
But supporters of the decision point out that, in the long run, preserving the current system will help save lives. The powerful medicines in question are not yet fully understood and can have severe or even deadly effects not wholly appreciated by patients frantic for a cure. Furthermore, enabling patients to bypass established experimental protocols will reduce not only the incentive of any person to participate in a trial, but that of a drug company to even conduct one. Eventually, such a system could result in drug anarchy as untested remedies are rushed to market by greedy profiteers preying on the hopes of desperate patients.
In addition to the particular scenario in question, the court's decision was important from the perspective of legal precedent. By rejecting that an individual has a constitutional right to "medical self-defense," as the Alliance described taking the drugs in such a life-and-death circumstance, the decision has effectively closed the door on the concept of an inviolate right to pursue other ethically questionable but potentially life-saving practices such as paying for organs or therapeutic cloning.
At least for now. Surely this answers just one of the inevitable legal and moral questions that arise from the intimate challenges confronted by those facing the end of their lives and those charged with preserving those very lives the best they know how.