Pass bill, save lives

  • March 16, 2011
The World Health Organization estimates 15 million people in the developing world need HIV medication but only five million can get it. That leaves 10 million forsaken souls, mostly women and children, denied life-sustaining drugs that abound in rich nations.

So we commend the 172 Members of Parliament who voted in favour of  private member’s Bill C-393 to make cheaper, generic drugs available to the world’s poor. The bill amends the Access to Medicine Regime which launched in 2004 like a fresh breath but ultimately got choked by red tape. The new legislation promises more drugs to more people in less time.

To become law, however, the bill must be passed by the Conservative-dominated Senate, which means the Senate must act immediately because in the event of a spring election the legislation will die. Although the bill could be reborn with a new Parliament, it would begin at the bottom rung of a long legislative ladder with no guarantee of ever reaching the Upper Chamber. Meantime, people are dying.

Senate passage calls for a rare act of non-partisanship. Bill-C-393 was sponsored by NDP MP Paul Dewar. It was supported by the NDP, the Bloc, almost all Liberals and some Conservatives. But it goes to the Conservative-controlled Senate without a government endorsement and lacking a single cabinet supporter.

That seems to make the bill a longshot to become law. But if ever a cause demanded a truce in party gamesmanship, this would be it. Seldom does the Senate have an opportunity to pass laws that can save hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of lives. Bill C-393 is such a bill and the Senate would be justly accused of moral delinquency if it lollygagged this bill to extinction.

The government’s opposition to this bill has been difficult to reconcile with its worthy ambition to improve maternal and child health in the developing world. In announcing that commitment 14 months ago in Geneva, Prime Minister Stephen Harper rightly noted that, “improvements to the health, education and living conditions of millions of women and children will mean a wave of hope that will ripple through the developing world.” Then last summer Harper persuaded G8 and G20 leaders to pony up $5 billion to support his signature cause.

Opponents to Bill-393 contend it will cause infringement of trademark and other rights held by big pharmaceutical companies, that it creates  a disincentive to research and that it will foster a black market for cheap generic drugs. Perhaps time will prove one or more of those arguments have some merit. But today the arguments ring pathetically feeble when weighed against the tragedy of thousands of people dying in poor nations because rich nations won’t share their medicine.

The Senate has a chance to right that indignity. Justice demands that they pass Bill-393.

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