Above Photo: AFGE/ Flickr
All of us at Public Citizen lift up in loving memory our dear friend and peaceful warrior Zahara Heckscher, who passed away on February 24 at the age of 53, after her years-long battle with breast cancer.
Among her many talents as a writer, poet, teacher and facilitator, Zahara was a fierce, creative and committed activist. As she valiantly battled advanced breast cancer, she became determined to fight for all patients to have access to the cutting-edge cancer medicines that extended her life.
When she learned that prescription drug companies were using the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations to lock in extended monopolies that threatened access to affordable medicines, Zahara became a passionate trade justice advocate on behalf of cancer patients around the world.
She galvanized testimony from people living with cancer and HIV/AIDS from the United States and other TPP countries to protest what she dubbed the “TPP death sentence clause” — a provision that would require governments to grant monopoly periods for biologic medicines used to treat cancer and other serious illnesses and thus deny patients access to more affordable generic and biosimilar medicines.
The battle over biologics and access to cancer treatment was responsible for dragging out TPP talks for years. In October 2015, she carried those patients’ stories with her to the final round of TPP negotiations in Atlanta to demand that the TPP negotiators drop the “death sentence clause”. She was arrested as she attempted to enter the negotiations, holding an IV-pole, calling on the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) to drop its insistence on demanding the extended monopoly period for biologic medicines.
The video of her arrest was shared widely on social media, and her subsequent media interviews on Democracy Now, The Big Picture and others contributed to the national conversation about the dangers of the TPP for health. Due in part to the advocacy of public health advocates like Zahara, the pharmaceutical industry and USTR failed to convince the other TPP nations to accept the full twelve-year monopoly they had been demanding, but the final TPP did include a five-year period.
Zahara insisted that cancer patients cannot wait even one additional year for access to medicines that can keep them alive, so she turned her efforts to stopping Congress from ratifying the TPP.
On World Cancer Day in February 2016, she and fellow cancer survivor Hannah were arrested blocking the entrance to PhRMA, the pharmaceutical industry’s lobby that had pushed the TPP death sentence clause, to warn the public and Congress about TPP’s dangers for access to cancer medicines. Together, Zahara and Hannah then co-founded Cancer Families for Affordable Medicines, creating public education and advocacy materials for cancer patients and their loved ones to support access to medicines by convincing their members of Congress to vote no on the TPP.
As the pressure on Congress to pass the TPP mounted in the summer of 2016, Zahara took her message directly to Capitol Hill, getting arrested a third time at the office of Congressman Polis, and traveling to speak in-district to undecided members of Congress to demonstrate what was at stake in the TPP for cancer patients and their loved ones. Despite the fact that TPP passage was a top priority of the White House, Republican congressional leadership and Chamber of Commerce, the district-by-district activism by people like Zahara ensured that the TPP could not achieve majority support in Congress.
In the last year, Zahara’s waning physical strength did not stop her from continuing her trade justice activism. Concerned by reports that the Trump administration was pushing for the same “death sentence clause” in its renegotiations of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), just last month, Zahara made an educational video to urge people to take action to ensure that NAFTA renegotiations not further undermine access to essential medicines.
Until the very end, Zahara used every tool at her disposal — from her razor-sharp intellect to her poetic spirit to even the cancer itself — to bless the world and to change it for the better. Her strategic and creative trade justice activism was just one small piece of her multi-faceted legacy. She was an inspiration. We will miss her dearly.