Thalidomide maker asks 'forgiveness'

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BERLIN -- 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, issued its first ever apology Friday -- 50 years after pulling the drug off the market.

Gruenenthal Group's chief executive said the company wanted to apologize to mothers who took thalidomide during the 1950s and '60s and to their children who suffered congenital 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 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 drug, a powerful sedative, was sold under the brand name Contergan. 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. Thalidomide was yanked from the market in 1961 and was also found to cause defects in the eyes, ears, heart, genitals and internal organs of developing babies.

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Thalidomide was never approved for use in pregnant women in the United States.

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

"It's a disgrace that it's taken them 50 years to apologize," said Astbury, of the Thalidomide U.K. agency, an advocacy group for survivors. "For years . . . [Gruenenthal] have insisted they never did anything wrong and refused to talk to us."

Astbury said the drugmaker should offer compensation. He 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.

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