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Associated Press
A 3-year-old girl, born to a German mother who took the drug thalidomide, uses artificial arms in this 1965 photo.

Thalidomide maker issues first apology

– The German manufacturer of a notorious drug that caused thousands of babies to be born with shortened arms and legs, or no limbs at all, has issued its first-ever apology – 50 years after pulling the drug off the market.

Gruenenthal Group’s chief executive said the company wanted to apologize to mothers who took the drug during the 1950s and 1960s and to their children who suffered birth defects as a result.

“We ask for forgiveness that for nearly 50 years we didn’t find a way of reaching out to you from human being to human being,” Harald Stock said. “We ask that you regard our long silence as a sign of the shock that your fate caused in us.”

Stock spoke Friday in the west German city of Stolberg, where the company is based, during the unveiling of a bronze statue symbolizing a child born without limbs because of thalidomide.

The statue is called “the sick child” – a name that a German victims group objects to, since all the victims are now adults. In German, the name also implies cure.

A powerful sedative, thalidomide was sold under the brand name Contergan in Germany. It was given to pregnant women mostly to combat morning sickness but led to a wave of birth defects in Europe, Australia, Canada and Japan.

It was yanked from the market in 1961. It had never been approved for use in pregnant women in the U.S.

Freddie Astbury, of Liverpool, England, was born without arms or legs after his mother took thalidomide. The 52-year-old said the apology was years long overdue.

“It’s a disgrace that it’s taken them 50 years to apologize,” said Astbury, with the Thalidomide U.K. agency, an advocacy group for survivors. Astbury said he and other U.K. survivors have received some money over the years from a trust set up by thalidomide’s British distributor but that Gruenenthal has never agreed to settle.

“For me to drive costs about ($79,000) for a car with all the adaptations,” he said. “A lot of us depend on specialist care, and that runs into the millions.”

In July, an Australian woman born without arms and legs after her mother took thalidomide reached a multimillion-dollar settlement with the drug’s British distributor. Gruenenthal refused to settle. The lawsuit was part of a class action, and more than 100 other survivors expect to have their claims heard in the next year.

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