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The Center for Practical Bioethics Weighs In on Proposed “Right to Try” Legislation in Kansas

A perspective from John G. Carney’s (President, Center for Practical Bioethics) based on testimony before the House Committee on Health and Human Services (HB 2004, Right to Try)

Most of us would agree that the “Right to Try” legislation proposed in the State of Kansas is appealing in the world of ideas and the realm of rhetoric where personal freedom and the pursuit of limitless aspirations are admirable ideals. But the world of reality bends its merits to questionable decisions that may disrupt the safe delivery of care to the most vulnerable population that healthcare professionals are called to serve.

In bioethics we recognize the deep-seated human impulse to rescue the imperiled, which is what this legislation seeks to do. However, we also grudgingly acknowledge that we could not run our businesses, public and private services or health care systems while indulging this impulse without limits. Furthermore, it is also widely accepted that “spectacle ethics” that turn individual cases into cause célèbre should not dictate public policy – no matter how heart-breaking they are. In the real world, there are good reasons to think that the “Right to Try” legislation should not be pursued despite our natural impulse to rescue.

While the popular framing of this issue characterizes interventions as miraculous and life-saving, there is little to no evidence that the interventions actually result in a good or “hoped for” outcome. We are not bound to provide a treatment that offers no benefit. In fact, it is a violation of our moral duty to do so.

Proponents may argue, if there is some evidence in the first phase of the clinical trial process that the patient may benefit from this treatment, then we should allow them access in the face of their impending death. Urgency is a given in these instances and experts argue that impending death is a criterion that allows for special consideration in these cases. But we are also obliged to consider the facts before arguing for new legislation to provide that consideration. 

Recent efforts within the FDA clearly demonstrate the agency’s attention to this issue. The FDA has updated and expanded its expedited processes for accommodating requests for access to drugs under development called Investigational New Drug (IND) Application. FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg has reported that in FY 2013, the most recent year for which data are available, nearly 100% of all applications submitted were approved (974/977) and many of those requests processed within hours of submission.

FDA has further pledged to continue to streamline its efforts despite its mandate to ensure safety and efficacy. For individual states to adopt legislation that circumvents the process of safety and efficacy places undue burdens on private business and manufacturers. Drug and medical device companies have repeatedly expressed concerns about their ability to handle and process the applications diverted from the FDA.

Furthermore, drug manufacturers are under no obligation to provide access to their products. The effects of unlimited access to drugs that have only been through Phase One clinical trials cannot be known and subverts the scientific process. In turn, accommodating appeals by individual patients ultimately diverts private business interests on the basis of questionable practices.

The substantive ethical and practical problems associated with this bill, coupled with the fact that these instances are exceedingly rare (estimated to be about 5 cases a year in Kansas), raise serious doubts about its merits. Significant and promising collaborative efforts are underway, such as the ALS Emergency Treatment Fund, that offer far more hope to patients than “Right to Try.”

The agencies that provide for our safety and ensure the efficacy of treatments operate in the real world, as does the legislature. Despite our natural need to rescue the imperiled, this committee and this body retain the responsibility to legislate with prudence and wisdom.

John G. Carney, President and CEO
Center for Practical Bioethics

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