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TV review: Thalidomide, the Fifty Year Fight

After 9/11, people often said that if Hollywood had come up with the idea they'd have been laughed at. It would've been too horrific and too unbelievable - and yet it happened.

I felt the same thing watching this documentary about the Thalidomide scandal: this was just too horrific - and yet it happened.

Birth under Thalidomide: a father speaks quietly about his newborn daughter: she was 'a torso with what appeared to be little flowers where her arms and legs should be.' Some medical staff, perhaps in shock, would deliver the deformed babies, swaddle them tight and place them wordlessly on the mother's chest, leaving her to pull aside the shawl and discover the horror for herself. There were even tales of babies placed in cold hospital rooms in the unspoken - and unspeakable - hope that hypothermia would tend to the problem. This wasn't taking place in a Victorian workhouse; it was in our NHS hospitals just a few decades ago. Horrific and unbelievable - and yet it happened.

The infamous drug was introduced to Britain courtesy of a drinks company called Distillers. They were worried about Valium, a new tranquilliser which was being talked about as a cheap and safe alternative to alcohol. The idea was that people would soon be relaxing at home with a pill, not a drink, so Distillers brought Thalidomide into the country and marketed it as a pleasant, hazy little drug called Distival. Soon, doctors were prescribing it to pregnant women as a cure for morning sickness. They issued a sedative - rather than an actual cure - due to the patriarchal belief that their nausea was simply caused by silly feminine anxiety about pregnancy. If they were slipped a sedative then the poor dears would calm down and stop feeling sick. They'd stop bothering the doctor with their ridiculous female hysterics, wouldn't they?

Soon enough, babies were being born with horrific defects.

Thalidomide was so potent that its effects would vary depending on which day the woman took it. A pill on Day 20 of her pregnancy would attack her baby's brain. Taking it on Day 21 would damage the eyes, whereas 'a tablet on Day 24 was capable of removing a full pair of arms.'

These pills went efficiently to work in dismantling the baby, and this horror all started just so a booze company could stay ahead of the competition.

Eventually, the parents lodged a compensation claim against Distillers and so began 'one of the dirtiest pieces of litigation' ever fought by big business.

And it's incredible that the company fought! Why were the board not immediately contrite? Why were they not just plainly and simply shamed? A photograph from the time shows the educated men of that fine organisation sitting round their polished table, under a twinkling chandelier, buttoned into their three-piece suits, neat and pleased with themselves, swollen with privilege, money and sheer ignorance.

These arrogant men eventually offered the small sum of £1 million to the families. Most of the parents, struggling with the botched destruction of their child, and of the resultant anxiety, discrimination, divorce and even the suicides of some of the mothers, were frantic to accept the cash but one parent, David Mason, realised the low sum was an insult and pushed for more.

Mr Mason, a West End art dealer, seemed erudite and, I assume, quite well-off, so perhaps it was his middle-class confidence which allowed him to dig his heels in, or perhaps he just wasn't in financial need so could afford to hold out, or maybe it was simple rage on behalf of his injured daughter, but he refused the compensation and so the deal was withdrawn. Some parents were furious at him for 'blocking' their money and Distillers leapt on this gladly and demonised him.

He tried to go to the newspapers to show how callous the company were but government lawyers shut down his media campaign. Everyone was against him until he learned of a successful American Thalidomide case. Using their arguments and legal guidance he continued his fight and soon won the support of an MP, Jack Ashley, and found renewed interest from one newspaper. He also started a boycott against Distillers' products, realising that the only way to force the company to acknowledge the atrocity was by harming their profits.

Under this relentless pressure, Distillers raised their offer to 3 million, then to 12 million and, finally, to the 20 million David Mason had always considered fair and necessary.

I watched this programme with a sense of muted euphoria. It was glorious to see this band of ordinary people gathering together to take on a gross, rich and supremely arrogant company. They had endured something unimaginable, and it had happened in the black and white 1960s when there still lurked oppressive and insulting attitudes to disability. In this bleaker era, and without the aid of PR and the internet and enlightened discrimination laws, they fought for years and years and yet more exhausting years against a company padded with wealth and power and disdain - and they won.

But would they have won had it not been for the indefatigable Mr Mason? The impression given was that the other families were ready to accept the initial low offer without question. And perhaps they had no option: perhaps they were struggling and desperately needed any crumb of help. Perhaps they lacked Mr Mason's loquacity and confidence and what I assume to have been his relatively affluent background?

So what happens if you're poor and have no choice but to snatch the first offer? What if you don't know the big words or the right names or which laws to quote and which names to drop? What if there's no David Mason on your team? What if it's just you, the baby in the pram and that board of directors looking right past you like you don't exist?

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