Who owns your body?

Many people even today live under the yoke of very direct and brutal slavery.  We have recently heard the horror stories.

But this is not the only way slavery is happening.

No – this time, I will not go on a long rant about how coercive taxation is, in a very real sense, the state making an ownership claim over our bodies, but it hits close.

Different societies are built on different principles – and, depending on these foundational ‘truths’, the governance of the society evolves.  All societies evolve over time.  But, those societies which build their governance on things other than the principles they were founded on soon run into serious trouble;

After all, in order for a society to function in a healthy way, for the citizenry to be able to anticipate, understand and guide themselves by the rules of the society, it is important for every new law, for every rule that is enforced, to be grounded in this foundation.  I’m not sure if I am explaining this clearly, so, if I am making a mess of it, please, let me know and I’ll try to clarify.

What I mean by this is that in a very practical sense, for a new rule to ‘work’ in a society, one must be able to reason to it by starting with the foundational principles.

In other words, if laws are passed which are arbitrary – cannot be arrived at by reasoning from ‘first principles’, sooner or later, the governance will not form a seamless body but the laws and regulations will become a mess, some may even contradict each other and it will be upon the whim of the police and the judiciary as to which rules are enforced when…

Our politicians – in all levels of government – are busy passing laws and regulations.  If every citizen were to memorize every new law and regulation as they are passed, they would have little time to actually be productive…and the society would begin to stagnate.

If, however, each and every law and regulation passed could be reasoned out from ‘first principles’ (the ‘foundational truths’ on which the society is built), then the citizen needs not memorize every new rule and regulation:  these will simply be a natural extension of the foundations upon which the society is built.

One of the core – if not THE core – ‘foundational truths’ on which our society is built is the principle of self-ownership.

So far, so good – yes?

I own my body and you own yours.  You cannot sell your children into slavery or for body organs, because while a parent may be a child’s guardian, the parent does not own their child.  Each and every human being owns her or him self.

So, what are our bodies made up of?

Lots of stuff.

Some of our ‘stuff’ shares common things with other humans, some with all living things – and some of our ‘stuff’ is uniquely our own and defines us as an individual.

Let’s look at some examples of ‘stuff’ that makes us up – but which we share with some others.

Blood, for example.

We can, within certain defined parameters, switch blood from one person to another:  from one who has enough and chooses to share to the ones who need it.

Same with, say, kidneys and corneas and lots of other ‘stuff’.

Our brilliant scientists have, for example, found a way to take a pig’s heart, keep the ‘infrastructure’ but wash away the DNA containing tissues, graft a human being’s own personal stem cells over this pig’s hear infrastructure – and then implant it into that human!!!  Most brilliant, since all the DNA-bearing ‘stuff’ is that owner’s very own DNA, so the body recognizes it as part of itself and the immune system does not try to ‘kill this invader’:  something which, when using another human’s heart, had to be fought with anti-rejection drugs that had considerable and unpleasant side effects.

AWESOME!

Right?

And there’s all these new cancer treatments and chronic illness treatments based on gene therapies!  It’s enough to make one feel like we’re living in the science fiction future!

Makes sense that we will expect more and more gene-based therapies for our ills.

But, there is a problem with this.

The problem is that, in their wisdom, the bureaucrats who award patents have agreed with deep-pocketed corporaions to grant them patents on genes.  Both human and non-human…

Please, consider this very, very carefully.

For decades, the MD’s and medical researchers have warned that the greatest obstacle to more gene therapies being developed and used in the practice of medicine are – you guessed it – patents granted on genes.

Oh, it crept in gradually, like all the greatest villains in history.

First it was a human-modified gene in one creature or another which made it more suitable for medical studies – human-altered gene, it was argued, intellectual property rights…

Then it was ‘unraveling’ genes – doing the lab work to identify them and the role they played.  The corporations argued – quite truthfully – that they invested money up front to make this possible.  And they did, that is true.

But we must remember why patents were ‘brought about’:  it was a trade off. The ‘inventor/thinker’ would share the information with everyone else about all aspects in return for ‘exclusive rights’ on the item for a period of time that would let them make back their investment plus a modest profit. But, it was argued, one could only patent ‘products’ – not naturally occurring ‘stuff’.

So – how come patents were granted to companies on naturally-occurring ‘stuff’ like genes?

A bit of ignorance and a bit of corruption, I guess…

But, we now find ourselves in a situation where multinational corporations own the patents on certain human genes.

Aside:  this issue is explored very, very well in a most excellent Canadian Netflix show, ‘Orphan Black’.  Not only is the show brilliantly written and generally awesomely executed, it tackles this very question:  if a corporation ‘owns’ a ‘gene and all its derivatives’, and that gene is inside of you, do they ‘own’ you?  Do they have a legal claim on your children?  Your child is, after all, a derivative of your genes….

Please, indulge me in the following speculation.

A corporation owns a specific gene which is, say, introduced into asthma sufferers using a specific virus (as the genetic material carrier).  This engineered DNA (patented by, say, Corporation ‘C’) is successfully integrated into your cells, so that all the cells of your body have replaced the old, ‘faulty asthma-causing gene’ with the newly engineered ‘C’ gene.

Then you have kids.

Your children will have inherited the ‘C’ gene.

Do you have to seek permission to ‘create a derivative of the ‘ C’ gene through reproduction’ before you have said child?

Do you owe the Corporation ‘C’ royalties?

Do they have an ownership claim on your offspring?

As the laws stand, these questions have not been answered very well.

For example, courts have ruled that if a genetically modified pollen accidentally pollinates your non genetically modified crops, you DO owe the pollen’s patent holder royalties.

Really, do think about where this is heading….

After all, if somebody owns your gene – something which is in every cell of your body – do they not have an actual claim of ownership over you?

This is why I am so thrilled that CHEO (Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario) has initiated a lawsuit challenging the patenting of a specific gene-test.  OK – a baby step, but a very, very important one!!!

Let’s keep our eyes on this one!

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5 Responses to “Who owns your body?”

  1. Steve Ridgeway Says:

    Hmmm, get a grip. We are not talking about gene replacement here but isolating a bad gene and using it to help detect itself in patients. Why shouldn’t a test be patentable, medical science is replete with patented procedures?

    Whether the bad gene should be patentable is another issue. Australia and the US appear to have reached different conclusions:

    “In the US, for example, the Supreme Court has drawn a line between patenting isolated gene sequences and complementary DNA (cDNA). InAssociation for Molecular Pathology et al. v Myriad Genetics , the court last year ruled against the patent claims held by Myriad and University of Utah on isolated BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene segments, reasoning that these DNA fragments, although removed from the body, are too similar to the DNA sequences in our bodies to be patent eligible. In the same ruling, the US court upheld the patent eligibility of claims on complementary DNA, which don’t occur in nature and are created in a lab for use as diagnostic probes.

    In contrast, the Federal Court of Australia in September upheld an earlier judgment that Myriad could patent mutations in the BRCA1 gene linked to an increased risk of hereditary breast and ovarian cancer. The Australian court reasoned that the process of isolating a DNA fragment makes it an artificially created, economically useful product, which in turn renders it deserving of patent protection.”

    http://www.genomeweb.com/clinical-genomics/update-canadian-pediatric-hospital-challenges-gene-patenting-long-qt-syndrome

    It will be interesting to see what Canada decides.

    Note that the patents in this issue are held by universities and are licensed to companies. Put your mind at ease. We won’t be owned by companies but by ivory towers.

  2. CodeSlinger Says:

    Steve Ridgeway:

    Don’t be so cavalier in dismissing Xanthippa’s point.

    You know as well as the rest of us that a lawyer will assume any posture – no matter how contemptible or contrived – that benefits his client.

    The question is not “is this reasonable?” or “is this ethical?” The question is “can I talk the court into this?”

    For example, just reflect on the legalistic poseurs who, with a straight face, argue that only militia members have the right to bear arms, or that the Bill of Rights applies only to devices that existed at the time it was ratified.

    How do you suppose such con artists would argue in the following situation?

    Suppose you had received gene therapy and then had children, to whom you had unavoidably passed on your modified, patented genes. Do you think these shysters would hesitate to argue that you had infringed some corporation’s patent by intentionally reproducing its intellectual property without proper compensation? Or that your children were infringing on the corporation’s patent by benefiting from its intellectual property, again without proper compensation?

    If you think such a travesty could never happen, I invite you to consider the case of Monsanto v. Schmeiser. In this case, the wind blew some seeds from a genetically modified crop onto a neighbouring farmer’s land. The plants from these seeds cross-pollinated with his own plants. He grew and harvested the resulting plants, and Monsanto sued him for patent infringement. The outcome?

    “The [supreme] court ruled in favour of Monsanto, holding that [the farmer’s] use of the patented genes and cells was analogous to the use of a machine containing a patented part.”

    So there you have it. If an organism contains a patented gene – no matter how it got there – the patent holder has the right to control the use of the entire organism.

    That is the law in Canada.

    So… what prevents these shysters from applying that ruling to a human organism?

    Why, nothing prevents it.

    Nothing at all.

    • Steve Ridgeway Says:

      Lawyers are free to try any legal ploy they want but that doesn’t mean they will win. Society and the courts draw a strong distinction between plants and humans. I can go into my yard and cut down a tree or pull up grass and no one cares. If I kill my neighbour, I’m looking at many years in the slammer.

      The Monsanto vs Schmeiser case proves nothing. Schmeiser found some of his crop had become contaminated by GMO seeds and then carefully harvested that part of the crop to provide himself with a Roundup resistant source of seed for the following year. If i go to a cash machine, request $100 but receive $1,000 while being debited for $100, I can be charged for theft of $900 if I don’t return it. Through no fault or effort of our own, I received an extra $900 and Schmeiser got modified canola. It’s what we do with it that matters.

      • xanthippa Says:

        Do not forget that judges are also lawyers – and can cite ‘legal precedents’ in decisions which a normal non-lawyer-type person would not consider reasonable or even sane.

        As for cutting down a tree – I don’t know where you live, but here, in Canada’s capital, people have spent tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees fighting for permission to cut down a tree they had planted on their property…. In other words, if you cut down a tree, you could just end up in jail.

        In the US, people have gone to jail for killing their grass.

        Perhaps your example is not as clear-cut as you think (no pun intended).

  3. CodeSlinger Says:

    Steve Ridgeway:

    Xanthippa could not be more right: contemporary judgements often bear not the remotest resemblance to what a normal person would consider just, reasonable, or sane.

    This is because the legalistic argumentation that prevails in court these days is a modern form of pharisaic sophistry – advancing a corporatist-statist agenda under the cynical guise of upholding justice.

    You are also right, Steve: lawyers are free to try any legal ploy they want. And they can be counted on to push it from the ridiculous to the sublime, with only a pro-forma regard for justice, reason, and sanity.

    This is precisely why good laws and good precedents are written to minimise the damage they can do when cunningly abused by malicious men.

    But nowadays laws and precedents are typically framed in a way that maximises the wiggle room accorded to large corporations and the state.

    Indeed, they would not be framed any differently if they were specifically designed to be legalistic bludgeons with which to hollow out the rights and freedoms of ordinary people and deprive them of any real force or effect.

    Thus your faith that precedents like Monsanto v. Schmeiser will not be abused by “the system” is naïve, at best.

    And naïve faith in “the system” is the worst mistake you can possibly make.


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