Originally published October 7, 2015
We are taught the difference between right and wrong from the earliest possible age. The Sesame Street ethics of cooperation, sharing, and honesty are indelibly etched into our collective consciousness. It’s not a new concept. Long before Mr. Rogers was teaching us about being neighbourly, the Golden Rule was the guiding principle of civilized conduct. Society grew and thrived because our ancestors realized than community mindedness was essential to our survival. We need each other.
So how did it come to be that our laws were written in such a way as to reward greed? Just a few weeks ago Turing Pharmaceutical CEO Martin Schkreli jacked up the price of the sixty year old anti-parasitic drug, Daraprim, by 5000% because he felt that it was good opportunity to “turn a profit.” Daraprim was developed in the 1940’s and the research has long since been paid off, but Schkreli didn’t see a problem with price-gouging sick people. The public outcry was fierce and Schkreli has since announced that he would revise the increase to allow for only a small profit.
Although Schkreli’s actions were reprehensible by most standards, they were legal. Our laws make it perfectly permissible to turn a hefty profit from people at their most vulnerable. Who better to profit from than the sick and dying? They have no choice. They either pay the market price for treatment or they face the consequences. From our government’s point of view, it is normal and acceptable when people can’t afford their medication and die as a result. For a drug company to demand a high price for a life-saving treatment, even when it costs pennies to produce, is sound business practice and keeps the shareholders happy.
Imagine you are inside your home, safe and warm, on a bitter cold winter day. There is a knock on the door. A child is on your step, freezing, and asks to come in from the cold. You ask for a fee; after all, it costs quite a bit to heat your home in the winter. The child has no cash, so you turn her away, back out into the cold. If she freezes to death, you are criminally responsible. You had an ethical obligation to provide a necessity of life to a fellow human being. How is this any different than a drug company denying treatment to a dying patient? To them, the drug they can’t afford is a necessity of life.
On the bright side, there are some commendable drug companies that will provide their medicines at a reduced cost for individuals that cannot afford their treatments. This, unfortunately, is not the norm, and companies are not legally obligated to show this sort of kindness. It might be worth studying the past television viewing habits of law makers and pharmaceutical CEO’s; to see if they watched Sesame Street or Mr. Rogers like the rest of us.