WASHINGTON — In the 1960s, Frances Kelsey in the Food and Drug Administration made herself immensely unpopular with the pharmaceutical industry by refusing to license a new German drug called thalidomide.
Thalidomide was supposed to be an ideal drug for treating symptoms of nausea and insomnia in pregnant women. Widely used in other countries, it was found to cause severe birth defects in more than 8,000 children. America was spared this grim experience by a regulatory agency doing its job. Today the FDA protecting Americans from harmful drugs doesn't seem to be half as effective as the FCC protecting us from dirty pictures.
In the past three years, only three drugs have been taken off the market. One of them was withdrawn two months ago, the arthritis drug Vioxx. It was taken off the market by the Merck company voluntarily without FDA involvement. Obligatory withdrawal of drugs has been steadily decreasing under an administration dedicated to deregulation.
Meanwhile, the Federal Communications Commission has been very busy regulating.
Their big event came last February when the FCC ordered a half-million-dollar fine to be paid by CBS for showing Janet Jackson's breast during the Super Bowl halftime show.
The FCC also proposed that a fine of $495,000 be levied on Clear Channel Communications for sexually explicit material on the Howard Stern show.
Dozens of ABC affiliates, fearing retribution at the hands of the FCC, declined to show the prize-winning motion picture "Saving Private Ryan," which has a lot of strong language.
All this takes me back to the 1950s when the word "pregnant" was excised from the popular "I Love Lucy" sitcom for fear that the word was sexually suggestive.
How much better things would be if they regulated drugs more and words and pictures less.
• Daniel Schorr is the senior news analyst at National Public Radio.