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Gene Patents and Our Bodies:
Permission Granted
Katie Coakley
Academic affiliation: Oklahoma State University
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Scientists have begun patenting everything humanly imaginable. They have shown that a person cannot own a whole human being, but that it is possible to own all the parts of that body. Wil S. Hylton in his article entitled "Who Owns This Body?" brought this issue to the attention of people. He educates by showing what has been oblivious to people for decades. Scientists have been patenting thousands of our body parts without our knowledge. They have the power to use our bodies without our permission. Gene patenting should be allowed only with the person's knowledge and permission.

In 1984, Dr. Golde was able to patent a patient's cells, John Moore, to a pharmaceutical company netting Golde $1.5 million dollars. Moore had never given Golde permission to do anything with his cells, but even in a court of law he could not win his case. The California Supreme Court ruled in 1990, "they [cells] might have come from his body, and they might have contained his DNA, but that didn't mean they were his" (Hylton 109). This ruling proved that Moore did not own his own body. Moore has his body to use and live with each day, but he does not have the right to prevent others from using it. Hylton continues by stating that it is too late to get patents on most of people's bodies because over a thousand have already been sold. Most people have no idea that this kind of atrocity has occurred on account of that this has not been a publicized debate. Now that people are becoming aware, they want that sense of knowing that no one else has access to their body without their knowledge. It is a matter of privacy and safety. People want to feel safe and in control and one of the few things people can control is themselves. However, scientists have showed that they have the control instead.

In 1980, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled Congress and overruled the U.S. Constitution by making it legal to patent a whole species of bacterium. "Here was the Supreme Court declaring a species of animal to be an invention. Here was the Supreme Court writing a new definition of life" (Hylton 117). After the 1980 decision, another patent was able to slip through the cracks that patented mice, pigs, horses, monkeys and cattle that were exposed to oncogene. These developments have been progressing for years. Soon children will start to believe that life is an invention according to Jeremy Rifkin who speaks out against these issues. He now works within the system trying to put a stop to patents that deal with human-animal hybrids. Rifkin is trying to get a patent that would allow him to stop anybody from doing research with hybrids.

A major factor that has granted many of these patenting projects is the funding behind it. Businesses want to find genes first and are willing to back multiple projects to achieve that goal. J. P. Morgan's research report shows that with their long-term buy in Incyte, they now have a "large, very valuable, and largely irreversible position," (Hylton 121). This is not surprising of course that major corporations want the ability to cash in when some discovery is finally made. By the companies supporting these projects through funds they are helping take away a person's right to their own body. They are just as guilty as are the scientists doing the patenting.

Another article discussing the gene patenting was written by Andrew Sheard. He states that the biggest objection to gene patenting is that it is part of mankind's heritage. Sheard points out that religion is rarely used in this debate, but more of a spiritual aspect is used. "A common misconception is that a patent confers some kind of property right…whereas in reality it merely enables the patentee to prevent unauthorized commercial dealings in the invention"(Sheard 2). Basically the patent is giving permission to an invention, which is part of the argument of humans. Their permission was never asked for.

Much of the patenting was done without anyone knowing about it. If it were known people would have had the chance to voice their opinions on the subject. Instead they were not involved in the decision making and are now hurriedly trying to find loopholes to fix the intrusion. Sheard says that religion is rarely brought up, but morality plays an important part in the debate. Many people do not believe that it is right to play "God." Many feel that by patenting genes scientists are trying to play with forces that they should not be playing with. The intentions of the scientists are not clearly stated to the public. We are not aware of the positive or negative aspects of their line of work. We do not have the power to make them tell us what they are doing. The only authority in the matter is the government, and they have already granted permission by allowing the patenting in the first place. The only way to change patenting is to change the laws that govern the patenting.

Sheard's concern in his article is much more about the debate of patents on chemical compounds. He discusses that the industry has pointed out that replicas of human genes are no different than chemical molecule patents from nature. Sheard believes that this is the "wider context of the debate" (4). He argues that the issue is the appropriateness of patents being granted and enforced. Sheard's article reflects and brings up new important debates. However, not once is the debate of permission addressed. Sheard makes a good argument: "much of the debate is spirited; some of it is hostile" (1). Much of the hostility can be attributed to the fact that the public was not fully aware of the activities going on in the patenting process.

Our obliviousness has allowed science to be sold for a price and we have lost the right to our bodies in the process. They can use it to achieve any of their thoughts or wishes. Scientists have already does this by patenting thousands of our body parts. The only way that this situation can be properly fixed is if scientists begin to ask permission for what they are doing. So if the question that has arisen is who owns this body, the answer is that we do. In that case they must ask permission to experiment on parts of our bodies. For example, in the case of John Moore, he was asked repeatedly to sign a contract by his doctor Golde to give up any and all rights as a patient. Moore did not sign those papers, but Golde still had the ability to patent his cells. Moore did not give permission and therefore, Golde should not have been able to go any further with his experimenting. Patients should have the choice to either give permission or to not give permission on situations that involve their body. If permission is granted then there is not a problem, but if permission is not granted, than science does not have the right to go any further.

Gene patenting probably has numerous positive aspects, but one of the negative aspects is that it has been accomplished without the knowledge or the permission of the people involved. This negative aspect has put a dark cloud over the science world and our government. Science is supposed to help better the world and the government is supposed to protect those in the world, but neither do their job. Science has found loopholes to get through the rigorous test of getting a patent. In 1970, Congress excluded bacteria in the Plant Patent Act, but this soon led to the protection of a bacterium under law ten years later. This travesty resulted in the steady increase of patents, which soon included human's cells. Humans did not give permission for scientists to do this. They should have had a choice. When given a choice in a matter, people are much more obliged to help, but when not consulted whatsoever, people will tend to feel betrayed. Scientists should offer a contract for patients to sign as always and they should be required by law to adhere to whatever that patient might choose to do with their body. We do own our own bodies and we should be asked for permission before it is just given away.

Works Cited

Hylton, Wil S. "Who Owns This Body?" Speculations An Anthhology for Reading, Writing, and Research. Landrum, Jason, Matthew Wynn Sivils, and Constance Squires, eds. Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, 2003. 107-125

Sheard, Andrew. "Patenting human genes: Reflections on the public debate." Journal of Commercial Biotechnology 8 (2002): 1-6.

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