Thalidomide survivor Lisa McManus admits a national apology to those affected by the drug will be a bittersweet moment, but hopes it won’t mark the end of government assistance.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese will deliver a formal apology to thalidomide survivors and their families in parliament on Wednesday, before a national site of recognition is unveiled in Canberra on Thursday.
While there are 146 known registered survivors in Australia, the exact number affected by the morning sickness drug in the 1950s that caused birth defects is unknown.
Ms McManus, who is also the director of Thalidomide Group Australia, said a formal apology on behalf of the government had been a long time coming.
She said the apology would spark mixed emotions.
“We have just dragged federal governments (to issue an apology) kicking and screaming like naughty boys out of the sandpit,” she told AAP.
“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.”
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.
Decades on, Ms 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,” Ms McManus 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.”
Ms McManus 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 off to new applicants.
The package provided a one-off payment of between $75,000 and $500,000, followed by annual payments of between $5000 and $60,000.
Ms McManus said the 146 people registered with the program was just a fraction of the number of survivors in Australia.
She called for the annual payments to thalidomide 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 told AAP.
“Many other countries have offered apologies to thalidomiders, and it’s appropriate Australia does as well, it’s the world’s greatest pharmaceutical disaster.”
Ms 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.