Breast Cancer Patient Arrested for Protesting TPP: "This is Price Gouging at the Cost of Lives"

October 06, 2015
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Zahara Heckscher

writer, mother and social justice advocate. She was arrested last week in Atlanta, Georgia, for disrupting the TPP negotiations in a protest aimed at maintaining access to affordable cancer medicines. She is currently in treatment for breast cancer.

The United States and 11 other Pacific Rim nations reached an agreement Monday on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the largest regional trade accord in history. The agreement has been negotiated for eight years in secret and will encompass 40 percent of the global economy. Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders issued a statement calling TPP "disastrous" and vowed to fight it in Congress. One sticking point on the TPP had been the so-called death sentence clause, extending drug company monopolies on medicines. The United States and drug companies had pressed for longer monopolies on new biotech drugs, while multiple countries opposed the push, saying it could deny life-saving medicines to patients who cannot afford high prices. The compromise reportedly includes monopolies of between five and eight years. Last week in Atlanta, Zahara Heckscher, a cancer patient, disrupted TPP negotiations and was arrested as she demanded access to the secret text to see whether it includes a "death sentence clause." Heckscher joins us to talk about her arrest and why she says "it would actually condemn women to death."


TRANSCRIPT

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: The United States and 11 other Pacific Rim nations reached an agreement Monday on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the largest regional trade accord in history. The agreement has been negotiated for eight years in secret and will encompass 40 percent of the global economy. U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman praised the deal.

MICHAEL FROMAN: We expect this historic agreement to promote economic growth; support higher-paying jobs; enhance innovation, productivity and competitiveness; raise living standards; reduce poverty in our countries; and to promote transparency, good governance and strong labor and environmental protections.

AMY GOODMAN: The secret 30-chapter text has still not been made public, although sections of draft text have been leaked by WikiLeaks during the negotiations. Congress will have at least 90 days to review the TPP before President Obama can sign it. The Senate granted Obama approval to fast-track the measure and present the agreement to Congress for a yes-or-no vote with no amendments allowed.

During Senate hearings in June, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders fought fast track, warning that the American people need time to understand the TPP. The now Democratic presidential candidate issued a statement Monday saying, quote, "I’m disappointed but not surprised by the decision to move forward on the disastrous Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement that will hurt consumers and cost American jobs. Wall Street and other big corporations have won again. It is time for the rest of us to stop letting multi-national corporations rig the system to pad their profits at our expense," he said.

One sticking point on the TPP had been the so-called death sentence clause, extending drug company monopolies on medicines. The United States and drug companies had pressed for longer monopolies on new biotech drugs, while multiple countries opposed the push, saying it could deny life-saving medicines to patients who cannot afford high prices. The compromise reportedly includes monopolies of between five and eight years. Well, in Atlanta last week, Zahara Heckscher, a cancer patient, disrupted TPP negotiations. She was arrested as she demanded access to the secret text to see whether it includes a death sentence clause.

ZAHARA HECKSCHER: I am not going to leave until the USTR shows me the secret death sentence clause, so I can verify that the TPP is not going to prevent women like me with cancer from accessing the medicines we need to stay strong and stay alive.

AMY GOODMAN: That was Zahara Heckscher, a breast cancer patient, being arrested for protesting TPP negotiations last week at the Westin Hotel in Atlanta. Well, Zahara joins us today from Washington, D.C., as well as Rob Weissman, president of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group.

We welcome you both to Democracy Now! Zahara, talk about, on the eve of the approval of the TPP, or at least the agreement reached—it now must be approved, at least in the United States, by Congress—why you got arrested.

ZAHARA HECKSCHER: Thank you, Amy. I got arrested because I learned about this death sentence clause in the TPP that would make these life-saving cancer drugs unavailable to women around the world for a period of five years, eight years or 12 years. We call it the death sentence clause because it would actually condemn women to death, because they cannot afford or their healthcare systems can’t afford the medicines. So, when I heard that, I knew, as a breast cancer patient, that I had to do something.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you say what your T-shirt says?

ZAHARA HECKSCHER: Yes. My T-shirt says, "I have cancer. I can’t wait 8 years." And we have learned that the agreement seems to still include a five-to-eight-year period that allows de facto monopolies for life-saving drugs, and other provisions that make regular medicines, not just the biologic medicines, unaffordable. And so, unfortunately, the death sentence clause is still in the TPP.

AMY GOODMAN: Your mother also had breast cancer?

ZAHARA HECKSCHER: Yes, and that’s another big motivation for me. I was only 11 when she died of breast cancer, and that was before these drugs were available. She only lived one year after she was diagnosed, and that’s what breast cancer means without access to the modern medicines, the biologics and the other emerging medicines that, for example, have kept me alive for seven years so far and still going strong. So I know very personally what it means when people don’t have access to the medicines. And I also know that breast cancer, it’s not about just the individual patients, it’s about the family. And for me, I’m fighting for my son to have a mom as much as I’m fighting for myself and for other women and their families.

AMY GOODMAN: What do pharmaceutical companies have to gain from this, Zahara?

ZAHARA HECKSCHER: The pharmaceutical companies have obscene profits to gain. And I’ll tell you, just one of the medicines, the medicine called Herceptin, which is a monoclonal antibody, a biological drug, they make multiple billions of dollars on Herceptin every year, charging patients between $50,000 and $100,000 per year for each patient. And that’s just one medicine. So $6 billion and up, depending on the year that you look at, is how much they’re making from just one cancer medicine. So, it’s not about profits. A little profit, fine. You know, they deserve some profits. But this is price gouging at the cost of lives.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask about comments made by the U.S. trade representative, Michael Froman, on the impact of the TPP on both research and access to life-saving drugs.

MICHAEL FROMAN: On biologics, as you know, this is one of the most challenging issues in the negotiation. We’ve worked cooperatively with all of our TPP parties—partners to secure a strong and balanced outcome that both incentivizes the development of these new life-saving drugs, while ensuring access to these pioneering medicines and their availability. And this is the first trade agreement in history to ensure a minimum period of protection for biologics and, in doing so, will help set a regional model and will create an environment in which, through comparable treatment, there will be an effective period of protection to encourage both innovation and access.

AMY GOODMAN: Zahara Heckscher, can you respond to this? And can you also talk about the relationship between generic drugs and biosimilar drugs? But first respond to Froman.

ZAHARA HECKSCHER: Sure. That statement I find very upsetting, because it is so much spin that it’s spinning—spinning the truth into a lie. It’s really inaccurate, an inaccurate description of the text, as far as we know. Of course, the final text is secret, but we have some good information about what’s in there. And he’s saying it’s balanced. The balance looks like this: pharmaceutical profits obscene, profits weighing things down, patients’ right to access an affordable medicine thrown out the window. So, I don’t call that balanced by any stretch of the imagination.

And when he says "protection," well, he’s not talking about protecting people’s lives, he’s talking about protecting the profits of the pharmaceutical industry, and in countries where, frankly, some of the countries, patients cannot afford these medicines at the current prices, nor can the health systems. Even in the wealthier countries that are part of the deal—Australia and New Zealand, for example—their health systems are having trouble even paying for the existing biologicals, not to mention the new ones coming down the pipeline that are going to be affected by the TPP.


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