"Right to try" somehow makes it into law

Back in March, I wrote about the somewhat amazing fact that the House GOP had managed to pass a “Right to Try” bill, allowing terminally ill patients an easier path to attempt experimental drugs and treatments which were not yet approved by the government for general use. I’ve never been sure why this is controversial as long as there are guidelines for when and how doctors can determine when someone is beyond hope of recovery through conventional treatments. Now, only ten weeks later, the bill has been signed into law by President Trump.

President Trump on Wednesday signed into law a bill that would allow those with deadly diseases to try experimental treatments and bypass the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

The so-called Right to Try Act of 2017, sponsored by Sen. Ron Johnson, R-Wis., unanimously passed the Senate last August, and cleared the House last week on a party-line vote of 250-169 — in a win for both Johnson and the Trump administration.

“Today I am proud to keep another promise to the American people as I sign the right to try legislation into law,” Trump said Wednesday. “I called on congress to pass Right to Try—such a great name—some bills they don’t have a great name—this one…And a lot of that trying is going to be successful. I really believe that. We did it.”

He added: We’re going to be saving tremendous numbers of lives.”

This legislation is a study in confusion from the politics side of things. It passed the Senate unanimously last year, yet in the House, it only managed a basically party-line vote. When asked to explain why Democrats were opposed to it, one of the most common complaints is that it might “give false hope” to the terminally ill. But if someone is already on death’s doorstep, it’s not as if they had much hope to begin with. Perhaps it’s just my cynical nature, but I suspect some of these Democrats were only opposing it because it was something Trump had endorsed and they don’t want to give him a victory on anything.

As for the practical application of the law, it remains to be seen whether or not we will wind up saving “tremendous numbers of lives” as the President said. But even if you only save a few who medical science had literally written off for dead, isn’t that still a win? Of course, the downside is that some experimental treatments may backfire and cause the patient to die even sooner. But those facing their own mortality, in conjunction with their families, should be able to take that gamble if they wish to.

There is one other advantage to this bill. (Strap in, because I’m about to say something that sounds entirely cold-hearted.) During the trial phase for any new drug or treatment, once it’s approved for trials with human subjects, progress is slow and the number of test subjects is usually relatively small. Allowing the terminally ill to take the risk means that more data will be collected sooner, either proving the treatment effective and getting it approved or determining that it’s a failure and sending it back to the drawing board.

It’s a rare day we get to say this, but congratulations to Congress and the White House for getting this done. You’ve managed to pass a law which might actually make a difference to people facing life and death decisions.

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