Unholy Trinity

by STANDARD SCHAEFER

Anyone still unconvinced about the power of the religious right in this country need look no further than this: a combined an attack on free speech, the woman’s right to choose, and affordable healthcare.

On July 8, 2003 the Washington Times ran an opinion piece by Rev. Jerry Falwell in which he attacked the Pharmaceutical Market Access Act, a recently proposed piece of legislation that would allow US citizens to import cheaper pharmaceuticals from abroad.

Eight days later, according to a vitamin buyers club called Life Extension Foundation, their headquarters were visited by the FDA. An intrusive and disruptive multi-day inspection ensued. At the close of inspection, the FDA demanded that the organization cease to make certain health claims in their literature. Licensed medical doctors working for the organization were also told they could no longer make "unapproved statements." Among the controversial statements cited was that folic acid lowers homocysteine levels.

There are often contradictory studies in relation to vitamin supplements, some of which are the result of drug companies that deliberately set out to discredit vitamin cures that cannot be patented.

In this case, the FDA’s orders do not seem to take into account that Life Extensions publishes peer-reviewed scientific papers and abstracts, provides documentation to their claims and makes medical doctors to available to its costumers who have specific questions.

Nor does the FDA’s order take into account the fact that in vitamin marketing cases federal judges have been favoring the use of disclaimers on alternative instead of outright censorship. Some of language under attack seems not to simply censor claims, but to limit needlessly the names of products. Life Extension Foundation has already complied with the FDA in removing the word "pain" from the label of its formerly named Natural Pain Relief formula, despite the fact that the product already has a disclaimer.

Falwell’s argument in the Washington Times was largely limited to linking the idea of importing cheaper drugs to the possibility that someone might import abortion drugs like RU-486. He provided no statistical evidence to make the point, but merely appealed to the usual scare tactics: "Would drug importation make non-FDA approved drugs legal, or put prescription drugs in the hands of those without prescriptions? No. Would it make them easier for those who crave deadly drugs to get them? Unquestionably."

He attacked the Life Extension Foundation as "rabidly anti-life" because it once published a summary of research in which health benefits, and not the anti-pregnancy qualities of RU-486 were described. He also attacked their support of embryonic stem-cell research.

LEF’s products are all legal and limited to vitamins, herbal supplements, and a few products believed to enhance hormone levels. In the past, the FDA has raided such distributors only to be forced by federal judges to release the products.

Life Extension Foundation has prepared a vigorous legal defense and has alleged libel.

Falwell also attacks Katharine Greider, author of a recent exposé on the pharmaceutical industry. In her THE BIG FIX, she describes the pharmaceutical industry’s more than cozy relationship with the FDA, and drug companies’ exploitative pricing tactics. Falwell does not dispute Greider’s THE BIG FIX on factual grounds. Instead, he attacks her personally because she correctly and calmly reports that current anti-choice regulations increase the risks of health problems in women by delaying their access to abortion. As result, many women are unable to receive abortions until the seventh month of pregnancy.

Jo Ann Emerson and Gil Gutknecht of the US House Representatives responded with a letter pointing out that over the next ten years, seniors are expected to save $630 billion on drugs as a result of this bill. They cite a study by the Kaiser Foundation that showed 29% of seniors let prescriptions go unfilled because they could not afford them. They also pointed that a former representative and physician, Dr. Tom Coburn, has supported the bill despite being an avid pro-life advocate.

The bill is simply an attempt to regulate the flow of approved prescription drugs that already cross the border every day and is a modest attempt to control some of effects of rising medical costs.

Some economists have characterized the trend toward privatizing medical care as leading to lower incomes for doctors, many of whom have warned away some of the best students from becoming physicians. Instead, many of the best medical minds are going into pharmaceutical industry.

Rabid market fundamentalists have undermined efforts to establish affordable healthcare through deregulation efforts. Pharmaceutical companies often champion regulation, particularly when it serves their purposes of extending patents and zealously defending intellectual property rights.

Ironically, there is a pro-life issue here, one the religious right has not found time to confront. An estimated 18,000 Americans every year die due to a lack of affordable health insurance coverage.

On July 25, the House passed the Pharmaceutical Market Access Act of 2003 (H.R.2427) by a margin of 243 to 186. It now faces a battle in the Senate where pharmaceutical lobbies have even more influence.

During the last election, the pharmaceutical industry contributed more than $20 million in political contributions in the past election. The Center for Responsive Politics estimates that $8 out of every $10 went to Republicans.

STANDARD SCHAEFER is a journalist in Pasadena, CA. He can be reached at ssschaefer@earthlink.net

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