The Modern Law Library
America’s battles over medical treatment choices didn’t start with COVID-19 and ivermectin
Like the legal profession, the practice of medicine in the United States is highly regulated. But that hasn’t always been the case, and the idea that a person has the right to try medical therapies of their choice has a much longer history. In Choose Your Medicine: Freedom of Therapeutic Choice in Americalaw professor Lewis A. Grossman presents readers with a turbulent history with unexpected fighters and comrades.
From his research, Grossman discovered that skepticism toward medical authorities has been the historic attitude that Americans have had throughout much of the country’s history. Instead, the deviation was the confidence in science that prevailed from the 1930s to the 1960s. In this episode of the Modern Law Library podcast, Grossman discusses these historic attitudes with the ABA Journal’s Lee Rawles and what these attitudes could mean for the nation’s public health.
Grossman points out that opinions on medical choice do not correspond directly to political opinions. During the AIDS crisis of the 1980s and 1990s, liberal gay activists joined forces with anti-regulation conservatives to demand that the US Food and Drug Administration change its policies and let HIV-positive people try drug treatments that had no not yet completed the approval process. . During the COVID-19 pandemic, it appears conservatives are more likely to push for unproven drugs and treatments, such as hydroxychloroquine (boasted by former President Donald Trump) and the antiparasitic drug ivermectin. But there are many instances of vaccine hesitancy on both sides of the political spectrum.
Choose your medicine takes readers back to the days of “heroic medicine”, in which doctors advocated extreme (and sometimes deadly) treatments, such as purgatives and bloodletting, in the hope that progress would be made towards cures. The book examines pre-Civil War efforts to regulate the practice of medicine and shows how they failed. It sheds light on once-popular movements, such as Thomsonism, practiced by followers of a 19th-century herbalist named Samuel Thomson.
A chapter of the book discusses the changes brought about by the health movements in the 1970s. A cautionary tale from this era is Laetrile – a “medicine” made from apricot kernels – which was touted as a wonder drug capable of fight against cancer. In practice, Laetrile did no such thing. But not all pushes for alternative treatments have been a failure: proponents of medical cannabis have been able to completely change laws and attitudes towards marijuana in a relatively short period of time. Other alternative treatments, such as acupuncture and chiropractic practices, have become common and successful.
In this episode, Grossman — who began writing the book long before the COVID-19 pandemic began — explains what it’s like to watch a new battleground develop over medical choice. He talks about the constitutional theories that proponents have used to push for therapeutic choice. He also shares a story he tells his students at the start of each semester: the story of a student named Abigail Burroughs, who was dying of cancer and researching an experimental drug.
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