Less than a week ago the Prime Minister for the Commonwealth of Australia rose in Parliament House, Canberra and said ‘sorry’ twelve times. That’s quite sorry, by any scale of sorriness. He was apologising for the hurt, not just the physical hurt, but the emotional harm, described by one person ‘like tossing a stone into the water: it causes a ripple effect’. Those ripples, intoned the Honourable Mr Albanese, “those ripples ran through lives around our nation. Bullying and teasing at school. Trauma and sadness at home. Exclusion and rejection when looking for work.”
No President of the United States of America has offered a similar apology; they haven’t had to, because that country, by fortuitous happenstance, had Frances Kelsey, a newbie on the team at the FDA at the time, who refused to approve the sale of Thalidomide in the USA. Frances had no proof of a harming mechanism for the tranquiliser; she only had a disquieting hunch, perhaps because she happened to be a uterus-bearer herself, about the potential for the pharmaceutical to cross the placental barrier and enter the bloodstream of a developing baby with unknown unfortunate consequences. She faced enormous pressure from the drug manufacturer; there was money to be made and, damn your hunch, Frances: it had already been approved for sale in over forty countries, including New Zealand, sadly. She stood firm. For her hunch, she would receive the ‘President’s Award for Distinguished Civilian Service’.
Acting on a disquieting hunch landed a gentleman in Wellington’s District Court this week, twice, and in imprisonment, temporarily or otherwise, at the behest of his employer, a body charged with monitoring public health. I’m not saying this gentleman is Frances Kelsey reincarnate, I’m not saying Comirnaty, affectionately known as ‘the jab’ just as Thalidomide may have been ‘mother’s little helper’, is causing deformities or even mass extinctions.
My point is that it’s impossible, it seems, in this post-reason world, for any debate to take place without immediate name-calling and innuendoes from our fellows in the press: conspiracy theorist, mis/dis/mal-informationist, a ‘kook’, ‘cooker’ over social and fringe media. And I wonder what Kelsey’s predicament might have been, faced with 21st-century mega-pharmaceuticals’ PR reach, their corporate tentacles penetrating deeply into government and media, and how much public, personalised, social pressure she would have faced for her stance in opposing a ‘very safe product’ capable of alleviating that awful incapacitation known only to uterus-bearers as ‘morning sickness’.
What a better world we would be to accept the ultimate insight of our very wisest ancestors; that we don’t know what we don’t know, but we can sit down and have a look at it, without all the shouting. And who knows, perhaps in sixty years time, some may express, and others may sympathise with those speaking of ‘ripples’ that ‘ran through lives around our nation. Bullying and teasing at school. Trauma and sadness at home. Exclusion and rejection when looking for work, simply for standing their ground: the hunch-followers.