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Right to Try: A Policy with No Downside

Imagine you or a loved one is diagnosed with a terminal illness. Currently available medicine has no cure, and barring a miracle, you’ll be dead in a matter of months. You’re told about an experimental new drug that has been shown to help people in a similar situation, perhaps even cure them. Wouldn’t you be willing, in the absence of any other hope, to try such a drug? After all, you’ve got nothing to lose, right?

Too bad. Unfortunately for you and others like you, the medicine in question has been caught up in the FDA’s lengthy approval process, and will not be released to the public until it will be too late. The law prohibits you from taking the one chance you might have to beat a deadly illness. Why? For your own protection, of course.

If this reasoning seems perverse to you, you’re not alone. It makes no sense to try to protect dying people from trying to save their own lives. That’s why many states have embraced a policy known as “right to try.” Under right to try laws, terminal patients are permitted to try unapproved drugs that might save or prolong their lives. Of course, all this is done with fully informed consent, under consultation with a qualified physician, and no one is being made to accept treatment against their will. We’re not talking about wildly untested or debunked medicines, but rather legitimate drugs that have simply not yet cleared the final hurdles of official approval.

In fact, one of the flaws in the current right to try structure is that the administrative process for obtaining experimental medicines is still too lengthy and restrictive, but any step in the direction of giving patients more control over their treatments is good for freedom, as well as for public health.

So far, right to try legislation has been limited to the state level, with 21 states legalizing the practice, and pending legislation in 19 more. Last year, however, Rep Matt Salmon (R-AZ) introduced a federal bill that would pave the way for right to try nationwide. The bill bans the federal government from interfering with the distribution, prescribing, or possession of potentially life-saving medicine, so long as such medicine is in accordance with state law.

What this means is tat the Food and Drug Administration, as a federal agency, would not be able to restrict the use of experimental drugs to save lives in states that wish to allow them. If legislation like this were to be signed into law, it could save countless lives across the country. It’s difficult to imagine any cogent argument against allowing terminal patients to fight for their own lives, and if Congress has any sense, they should follow the lead set by the states, and work to make national right to try laws a major priority.