Breast Implants: The Evidence Isn't In

Just as the O.J. Simpson case has become the benchmark for how not to conduct a murder trial, so too is the battle over silicone breast implants well on its way to setting new lows for product-liability cases. On one side are almost half a million women who claim they were or could be harmed. On the other side are the implant manufacturers, including Dow Corning Corp. and Bristol-Myers Squibb Co., which face the possibility of enormous damages. A $4.2 billion settlement--the largest in litigation history--negotiated a year ago to settle a class action was supposed to avoid ruinous and protracted legal proceedings. But it has broken down, and there's little hope for a new agreement by the Aug. 30 deadline set by the judge.

One thing making it hard to reach an agreement is the inconclusiveness of the scientific evidence presented so far. Recent studies show no link between implants and typical autoimmune diseases that implants were originally suspected of causing, such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus. But women with implants may suffer from other diseases as well, and doctors are often slow to recognize problems that don't fit conventional categories. For example, many of the recently discovered tick-borne illnesses may have been around for a while without being noticed by the medical profession.

Fortunately, more answers may be coming. Scientists at Brigham & Women's Hospital in Boston are nearing the end of a huge study of 450,000 women (of whom about 9,000 have implants) that examines atypical symptoms as well as the traditional suspects. When the study is finished in early 1996, it will be attacked by whichever side doesn't like its conclusions. But however imperfect, this research and other studies do offer hope for finding out how risky silicone breast implants really are--and how much compensation women deserve.

With new evidence on the way, the Aug. 30 deadline is too soon. Rather than rushing plaintiffs and defendants into a settlement that may fall apart again, the judge should give them more time. As one scientist observes: "The search for scientific truth should precede all the litigation and fighting." That may not be what litigious America chooses, but relying on the best science available is the preferred alternative in this case.

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