Prime Minister Anthony Albanese has issued a national apology to all Australians affected by the “thalidomide tragedy”.
Wednesday’s statement in the House of Representatives came 50 years after the global pharmaceutical disaster that caused distress, disability and death for so many families.
There are 146 known registered thalidomide survivors in Australia, although the exact number affected by the morning sickness drug in the 1950s that caused birth defects is unknown.
Babies were born with deformities including shortened limbs, blindness, deafness or malformed internal organs.
Many women miscarried or lost their newborns soon after birth.
“We apologise for the pain Thalidomide has inflicted on each and every one of you each and every day. We are sorry. We are more sorry than we can say,” Albanese said in Canberra.
“We are sorry for the harm and the hurt and the hardship you have endured. We are sorry for all the cruelty you have had to bear. We are sorry for all the opportunities you have been denied.
“We are sorry for the battle you have had to fight over decades for fair support and due recognition, and we are sorry that there are so many who deserve this apology who have not lived to see this day.”
A national apology was one of the recommendations from a Senate report into thalidomide that was handed down in 2019.
The report found if the government at the time had acted more quickly when thalidomide was linked to birth defects, 20 per cent of survivors may not have been affected.
In November 1961, when the link was established, federal and state governments took no action to ban the importation or sale of the drug.
“Today as we express our sorrow and regret, we also acknowledge the inescapable historical facts,” Albanese said.
“The fact that even after the grave dangers of this drug were known, importing Thalidomide was not prohibited. Selling it was not banned. Products and samples in surgeries and shops were not comprehensively recalled or entirely destroyed.
“Saying ‘sorry’ does not excuse this or erase it. There are no words that can undo what has been suffered. There’s no sum of money that can square the ledger.”
Albanese’s words were echoed by Opposition Leader Peter Dutton.
“We stand with the government in saying a heart-felt sorry to all Australians impacted by the Thalidomide tragedy. Sorry to the survivors, sorry for those who are sadly no longer with us and sorry to all of their families,” he said.
“It’s an apology that should have been made long ago without your repeated asking. But with without your repeated asking, it is an apology which could not have been made today. Although this apology is delayed, it is made today with the deepest sincerity and sorrow and I thank you for being people of profound principle and patience.”
Earlier, Thalidomide survivor Lisa McManus admitted a national apology to those affected by the drug would be a bittersweet moment, but hoped it wouldn’t mark the end of government assistance.
McManus, the director of Thalidomide Group Australia, said the formal apology on behalf of the government had been a long time coming.
“We have just dragged federal governments [to issue an apology] kicking and screaming like naughty boys out of the sandpit,” she said.
“I’m very cautiously jaded … I know it’s going to happen, but it needs to be heartfelt and tell the truth and I’m hoping it’s not going to be brushed off.”
Decades on from Thalidomide being banned in 1961, McManus said survivors were still dealing with the inaction of governments of the day.
“This was a battle that never should have needed to happen,” she said.
“I was one of those babies conceived in that time and damaged because governments knew this was happening.
“People have waited 50 years for this, I think too many of our parents have died but there is a lot of anger that it has taken this long. It’s something that should have happened years ago, not when we’re in our old age.”
She has urged the government to reopen a support program for Thalidomide survivors.
While financial support was unveiled for survivors in 2020, the program has been closed to new applicants. It provided a one-off payment of between $75,000 and $500,000, followed by annual payments of $5000-$60,000.
McManus said the 146 people registered with the program was just a fraction of the number of survivors in Australia. She called for annual payments to survivors to be linked with CPI to give those on the payment adequate support.
Greens senator Jordon Steele-John said it was critical for the support service to be reopened to unrecognised survivors.
“It is vital that there still be a pathway for survivors to get justice, recognition and ongoing support,” he said.
Lawyer Peter Gordon, who led a class-action lawsuit for Thalidomide survivors in Australia between 2009 and 2014, said the government apology was much needed.
“Australia does have a lot to answer for in respect to the thalidomide disaster,” he said.
“Many other countries have offered apologies to Thalidomiders, and it’s appropriate Australia does as well, it’s the world’s greatest pharmaceutical disaster.”
McManus said the national apology should not be the end of a government focus on survivors.
“A good apology is only as genuine as the actions that follow it,” she said.