The Minister of State will be aware of the situation with regard to thalidomide. I ran in Dún Laoghaire in the general election of last year and I was surprised to find that the issue of thalidomide was raised at three or four doors as I went about campaigning. I was further surprised to find, when canvassing for James Geoghegan, the Fine Gael by-election candidate, in Sandymount last week, that one whole road of people raised this issue with me as well. When I speak to colleagues, people ask whether thalidomide is still a thing. It is important to realise that it is very much still a thing.
The Minister of State will be aware that thalidomide was a drug issued by a German company which was available in Ireland in the early 1960s and late 1950s as an antidote to morning sickness for women who particularly suffered with it. In 1961, the manufacturer became aware of concerns about the effect the drug had on the unborn child. In November 1961, it made that clear and, in January 1962, warnings were sent out to pharmacies and doctors in Ireland. However, the Department of Health did not issue a public warning until June 1962. This means there was a period of approximately six months in which women continued to take thalidomide without being aware of these effects.
The effect of this is still to be seen today. It is difficult to estimate the exact number of thalidomide survivors in this country. Officially, the Department says there are 29 because there are 29 people involved in litigation. Depending on how the effect of the drug is categorised, there are either 36 or 37 people in this country who survived the effects thalidomide had on them before they were born. The associated disabilities, the effects this drug had on them, range from a missing or disabled limb to substantial incapacitation. Some of these people require 24-hour care. They are in their early 60s, they have borne these problems and disabilities throughout their lives and they and their families continue to bear them.
What is, perhaps, most striking about this whole process, based on the conversations I have had with people involved with the survivors of thalidomide, is that the mothers of those people, the women who took that drug, bore guilt notwithstanding that they were not at fault and made no mistake because they were not told. Many of those mothers are no longer with us but they bore a great burden of guilt right up to the moment of their death for what happened to their children before they were born. This is an appalling situation.
The Irish Thalidomide Society and the survivors of thalidomide in Ireland are looking for three simple things. First and foremost, an apology. There is no doubt to my mind, reading the documentation and looking at media reports, that the Irish Government failed in its duty to its citizens by not issuing a warning in advance of June 1962. I am aware that there is litigation in place and that the Minister of State may be hamstrung, to a certain extent, by that. It is not about apportioning blame; it is about accepting responsibility. In modern times, one of the things that the State has actually done is to confess to its crimes and failings of the past. I have seen that in this Chamber since I have become a Senator, as well as over the last number of years. It is appropriate. The very least that these people could expect from the Department of Health is that they would get a heartfelt and sincere apology.
Second, they are looking for compensation. In the course of the litigation to which I have referred, I understand the State has asserted that the discovery process alone will cost €24 million. I do not know how that figure is arrived at. I cannot conceive of how much documentation must be involved. If we are dealing with about 30 people, €24 million cannot be far off what they would be getting in compensation anyway, if successful. We need to set aside the bureaucracy and look at a fair and equitable compensation scheme for these people.
Third, we need to look at a medical scheme for them. Yes, they have received a medical card and that is right and proper. However, we are dealing with people, some of whom have significant incapacitation,and many of whom do not know how bad their condition is going to get in the coming 20, 30 or 40 years. What is the effect going to be on them? How are they going to support their medical needs? The State needs to step in. I am looking forward to hearing the Minister of State's response.