A Snub for the Dying

On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled 8-2 that terminally ill patients who have exhausted all available treatments have no constitutionally protected right to access experimental treatments not yet approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration.  A panel of the D.C. Circuit previously had ruled 2–1 in favor of the terminally ill patients who brought the case, Abigail Alliance for Better Access to Developmental Drugs v. Eschenbach

The Abigail Alliance is named for Abigail Burroughs, who died of head and neck cancer in 2001 after failed attempts to access Erbitux (cetuximab) through the FDA’s existing channels.  (In 2006, the FDA approved Erbitux for treatment of head and neck cancer.)  The Abigail Alliance now represents similarly situated, terminally ill patients who only want one last shot at life.  Eschenbach is commissioner of the FDA.

In an op-ed [$] in today’s Wall Street Journal, my colleague Roger Pilon discusses the tortured legal reasoning that led to the perverse conclusion that terminally ill patients do not have a fundamental right to save their own lives. 

The scientific and economic argument supporting the FDA’s case is that we would get far less information about drug safety and efficacy if terminally ill patients could access unapproved drugs, because there would then be no incentive for patients to participate in the clinical trials that generate such information.  There are a number of problems with this argument, the greatest being that it reduces Abigail Burroughs to a cog in some bureaucrat’s grand machine.

On September 25 from noon to 2pm, the Cato Institute will host a forum on Abigail Alliance for Better Access to Developmental Drugs v. Eschenbach.  Speakers will include Scott Ballenger, lead counsel for the Abigail Alliance; Ezekiel Emanuel, chair of the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health; and yours truly.  Keep watching Cato@Liberty or the Cato website for further details.

This week’s ruling brought to mind a quote from Mark Twain that appeared in the New York Times on February 28, 1901, and that Mike Tanner and I included in our book Healthy Competition:

The State stands a Gibraltar between me and anybody who insists upon prescribing for my soul what I don’t want to take… . Why shouldn’t I have equal liberty with regard to my body, which is of so much less concern? … Now what I contend is that my body is my own, at least I have always so regarded it. If I do harm through my experimenting with it, it is I who suffer, not the State.