Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Big Pharma: a story of love, hate, and Benjy

If you hang around autism folks even a little, you're going to get an earful about Big Pharma. There's a fair amount of (understandable) fear and loathing out there. When you hear stories like the one I heard on NPR  last week, about drug companies under producing (or not producing) old standby cancer meds -- the tried and true ones -- because they do not bring in the bucks, you have to feel a good measure of rage and sadness. I hope my big sister Jenny, who died of breast cancer in 1996 on her 36th birthday, is haunting those decision makers at night and scaring the bejesus out of them. Because that is about the lowest, most immoral decision a person could make. Oh,. yeah -- except when you live in a culture where the first and foremost concern is The Bottom Line.

Although I'm tackling the issue of Big Pharma today, I'm not going to wander into dangerous vaccine territory (There Be Dragons Here). Suffice it to say I have my own opinions on vaccines and autism, and they shall remain private. What I do want to say is this: Yes, Big Pharma does some reprehensible things. Yes, they're business people and not philanthropists. And yes, it seems that drug manufacturers are primarily concerned with the bottom line.

However, there's something else I want to say, and I am going to say it in ALL CAPS:

WITHOUT BIG PHARMA, THIS WORLD WOULD BE POORER BY ONE ELEVEN-YEAR-OLD BOY. Actually, it would be poorer by many millions of people. I have no doubt that the drugs Benjy takes twice a day, and sometimes thrice, are preventing him from ending his life. And if his life ended at eleven, mine would end -- not literally, but no less truly -- at age forty-eight.

One of the things I do as an English professor is teach my students to embrace the gray zone. To recognize that great literature does not really deal in absolutes. Things are complicated. Characters are often nuanced, neither all good nor all bad. Meaning is hard to pin down. All of this, of course, is also true of life.

While I do not accept the bottom line as a legitimate reason for denying anyone life-saving or life-improving drugs, I acknowledge the tremendous good that Big Pharma has done, and continues to do, on a daily basis. I even think a lot of the researchers who work on these drugs really care about people. Maybe all of them do. I hope so.

Is Big Pharma all good? No way. Is it all bad? Well, my boy is downstairs as we speak, watching YouTube videos involving embarrassing bodily functions. And there's your answer.

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