Ballot Initiatives

Stuff Your Faces with Experimental Drugs, Dying Arizonans!


"Pills or death?" "Um … I'm gonna go with the pills."
credit: / photo on flickr

This week Arizona joined Michigan, Colorado, Louisiana, and Missouri when voters approved a "right to try" ballot initiative allowing terminally ill patients to experimental drugs or medical treatments that have passed early stages of clinical trials but are not yet formally approved by the Food and Drug Administration.

It seems like it should be a no-brainer (and it was, passing with 78 percent of the vote). As our Nick Gillespie has noted: "You don't have to be a doctrinaire libertarian—though it helps—to see the value in letting people with nothing left to lose experiment on themselves. They may get a new lease on life. The rest of us get meaningful information that may speed up the development of the next great medical intervention."

Nevertheless, The Washington Post has sought out critics of this silly idea that dying people should be able to try whatever they want as long as it doesn't hurt anybody but themselves:

Critics of the "Right to Try" laws say these unproven treatments could hurt patients and the drug development process. Further, the drugmakers don't have to provide these treatments, and there are reasons why they might not want to, including liability concerns and a lack of supply early into a drug's development. And insurers don't have to cover the drugs.

New York University bioethicist Arthur Caplan has criticized these laws as a "feel-good" effort that doesn't tackle the main problem — being able to afford these expensive treatments. That goes for the families who want to pay for the drugs, and the small companies funding the lengthy process of getting a drug to market.

These are rather odd criticisms that seem to boil down to: "Acknowledging that a terminally ill person has a right to try experimental drugs doesn't actually obligate anybody to provide these drugs, therefore it's no good." The only choices to them are apparently bans or mandates. The patients not able to get these drugs at all now. It's absurd to complain about equality of access when the current outcome is that nobody gets any of it, except for those who turn to the black market. This is similar to complaining that selling birth control medication over the counter rather than through a prescription doesn't really count as improving women's access because women would still have to pay for it.

In any event, Arizona voters obviously realized there was no point of making perfect the enemy of the good when people were dying. Perhaps more states will join in.