Lilly vaccine issue will get front-door
hearing it deserves
January 14, 2003
"Look, Ma, no hands!" As soon as you hear those words, you can
bet what happens next is going to look ugly.
Ask Eli Lilly and Co.
Two months ago, a measure protecting Lilly from vaccine-related
lawsuits turned up in a very unlikely place -- attached to the Homeland Security
Lilly professed surprise and said it had no hand in the matter.
Lilly wasn't steering the measure, the company says. Just going along for the
Indeed, diligent searching turned up no identifiable Lilly
But, predictably, this careening ride through the halls of
Congress has ended in a noisy crash.
On Friday, Senate Republicans agreed to repeal the Lilly lawsuit
protection measure. The House quickly pledged to follow suit.
For nearly a year's lobbying, Lilly has come away with little
more than a public relations black eye.
The White House and Congress drew up the Homeland Security Act
to guard the nation against terrorists, not trial lawyers.
But must-pass legislation like this is particularly tempting to
lobbyists. Get your pet measure attached to it, and it will pass into law.
Nobody will dare vote no, or cast a veto, against critical legislation just to
dunk a pesky rider.
What tempted Lilly was the prospect of shielding itself from
lawsuits involving thimerosal, a vaccine preservative that contains mercury.
Lilly no longer makes thimerosal.
Scores of parents of autistic children blame their kids' autism
on thimerosal, and are suing. Lilly says the lawsuits are groundless.
Research on the question so far is inconclusive.
Last fall, Lilly spokesman Edward Sagebiel said Monday, Lilly
asked Congress to add thimerosal lawsuit protection to the Homeland Security
Lilly got the door slammed in its face. No way, the word came
back. Congressional leaders wanted a clean bill -- one not burdened with lots of
At that point, Sagebiel says, "We stopped our lobbying efforts."
But when the measure emerged from Congress, lo and behold, there
was the lawsuit protection.
There was no lack of suspects, including maybe some unidentified
Capitol Hill ally of White House budget maestro Mitch Daniels, a former Lilly
All denied involvement.
But Lilly nevertheless appeared to have benefited from someone's
cynical manipulation of critical national security legislation.
In a statement released Friday, Lilly said it "agrees that the
process by which this legislation was enacted was not desirable, and fully
understands the action taken by the Senate."
The legislative sleight-of-hand that slipped the lawsuit shield
into the Homeland Security Act didn't just put egg on Lilly's corporate face. It
also heightened the suspicions of those parents who are suing.
And it's handed ammunition, at least in a public relations
sense, to their attorneys.
Lilly's not giving up, though. It plans to pursue identical
legislation this spring, Sagebiel says.
In that effort, the company has powerful political allies. The
list includes Senate Majority Leader William Frist, a medical doctor who favors
the lawsuit shield.
And that's the way to go about it. As a piece of separate
legislation. Debated on its merits, in full public view.
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"A foolish faith in authority is the worst enemy of truth."
-- Albert Einstein, letter to a friend, 1901
"I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education."
-- Thomas Jefferson, letter to William C. Jarvis, September 28, 1820
"What's the point of vaccination if it doesn't protect you from the unvaccinated?"
-- Sandy Gottstein
"Who gets to decide what the greater good is and how many will be sacrificed to it?"