DC Court Overturns FDA Ban on Electric Shock Therapy for Disabled Individuals, Allowing Controversial Procedure in Massachusetts

Despite an ongoing ban on the use of electric shock devices by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to “correct” behavior on the developmentally disabled, a D.C. Circuit court has ruled that a medical institution in Massachusetts can continue to use the controversial treatment on its patients, becoming the only facility in the U.S. to currently still use the questionable medical therapy.

Reuters’ Brendan Pierson reported that on Wednesday, July 7, “in a 2-1 opinion, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found that the ban was a regulation of the practice of medicine, which is beyond the FDA’s authority.”

In March 2020, the FDA announced its initial and first-ever ban on the use of electric shock devices to treat “aggressive or self-harming behavior.” The ban was made possible due to a little-used statute, which allows the agency to pull potentially dangerous or harmful medical devices off the market.

Prior to its ban on electric shock devices, the FDA’s banning power had only ever been used twice before: once on a harmful form of hair implants and once on a type of powdered surgical gloves.

Physicians and some parents and guardians of patients at the Judge Rotenberg Educational Center in Canton, Massachusetts, said they believed the D.C. Circuit court ruling was a major victory. The group had spent months trying to overturn the regulation, saying that shock treatment procedures benefited patients who did not respond to any other form of treatment and were therefore needed.

Michael Flammia of Eckert Seamans Cherin & Mellott, which represented the Rotenberg Center in the trial, said in a statement that officials were pleased with the ruling and were thankful that they would be able to continue to use shock therapy treatments on their patients.

“With the treatment, these residents can continue to participate in enriching experiences, enjoy visits with their families and, most importantly, live in safety and freedom from self-injurious and aggressive behaviors,” Flammia said.

Lawyers representing parents who were involved in the suit released their own statement following the ruling, saying, “we have and will continue to fight to keep our loved ones safe and alive and to retain access to this life-saving treatment of last resort.”

Disability rights advocates, however, are horrified by the overruling in the case and continue to argue that the use of shock therapy on the disabled causes severe psychological and physical injuries that last a lifetime.

Heather Morrison of MassLive reported that the Rotenberg Center’s electric shock devices, which are manufactured and used exclusively in the facility, have a long history of controversy.

“The facility introduced these types of devices in the 1980s. Since then, many advocates have spent decades speaking out against their use,” Morrison reported. “The facility has had numerous news articles written about their practices, including stories from MassLive, a number of court cases and a 2012 viral video that shows a student screaming and asking for them to stop.”

In the viral video, a student can be heard screaming in agony, saying, “That hurts. That hurts. Stop. Stop for real.”

In an interview with MassLive in 2020, after the initial ban was announced, Lydia Brown, Associate for Disability Rights and Algorithmic Fairness at Georgetown Law’s Institute for Tech Law and Policy, called the procedure profoundly painful, abusive and inhumane, noting that patients at the center were sometimes given thousands of electric shocks in a single day.

“[The ban is] so overdue, they started shocking people in 1988. It’s been condemned twice by the United Nations, and the Department of Justice opened a civil rights investigation,” Brown said. “And yet, it’s still legal.”

According to Brown, the level of abuse patients in the facility had suffered from electric shock therapy was so severe that the state needed to make official reparations to survivors because of their irresponsibility in letting the facility remain open.

“A ban will do nothing to undo the decades of torture that people confined to [the Rotenberg Center] have had to suffer through until now,” Brown said.


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