Throughout 1977, thousands of Americans fought in the political trenches over defatted apricot pits.
Despite a lack of efficacy in clinical studies, Laetrile was hailed as a “miracle drug” for cancer treatment. The banned alternative medicine graced the cover of Newsweek that June, garnering support from liberal patient rights’ advocates and libertarians alike. About 58 percent of Americans supported Laetrile’s legalization, and a smaller, more vocal group took it a step further, arguing that the FDA and the pharmaceutical industry were in cahoots, intent on keeping the forbidden fruit at bay and cancer patients in pain.
The medical melee bears a resemblance to dubious COVID-19 remedies. But as Lewis Grossman writes in Choose Your Medicine: Freedom of Therapeutic Choice in America, published in October, fights for unorthodox treatment have been a constant throughout American history. And they’re sometimes injected with doses of paranoia.
“What partly drives the demand for medical freedom is an anti-elitism, sometimes veering right over into conspiracy mongering,” says the Washington College of Law professor and food and drug law scholar. “It gets to the point where people think not just that, ‘I don’t trust these people to make decisions for me,’ but, ‘These people are intentionally working against my interests.’”
Analyzing more than two centuries of therapeutic choice fights in America, Grossman highlights four common themes—bodily and economic liberty as well as freedom of conscience and inquiry—that have driven everything from the Thomsonians’ efforts to combat medical licensure laws in the nineteenth century to the push for medical marijuana starting in the ’90s.
Jagged battle lines have produced some “strange bedfellows,” Grossman says, a “repetitive phenomenon” of bodily autonomy advocates and limited government proponents making uneasy alliances on positions like the deregulation of dietary supplements and expanded access to unapproved AIDS drugs.
“It shows how when you put these questions in the public sphere, there is a bipartisan, ‘Keep your hands off me’ consensus in many instances,” he says. The same across-the-spectrum agreements have often held true in the courtroom. Conservative judges can be hesitant to read unarticulated medical rights into the Constitution while their progressive peers tend to avoid obstructing government economic and health regulations.
As a result, some of the biggest wins for therapeutic choice have occurred on the streets. Choose Your Medicine details how AIDS activists banded together in the ’80s and early ’90s to pressure the FDA to make more experimental drugs available. As a result, the agency shifted to a quicker and more aggressive approach toward lifesaving medications while increasing patient involvement in decision-making.
History has taught us, though, that many fights for therapeutic choice are rooted in false hope—not factual accuracy. Choose Your Medicine wasn’t driven by the pandemic—Grossman wrapped in 2020, just after COVID-19 emerged—but it nevertheless provides a historical context for crazes surrounding emergent, ill-advised treatments like hydroxychloroquine and ivermectin.
“We’re touching on a very real and persistent phenomenon in American history,” Grossman says. Where trust in institutions has eroded and fear thrives, “You will find large chunks of the population willing to try anything.”