You can’t tell me what to do, you don’t OWN me!

Well, technically parts of you are owned. It’s possible today to put a patent on life, and it’s happening.  How can you claim ownership on something that’s naturally occurring within every animal on this earth as yours? It’s not legal to put a patent anything naturally occurring, such as a dog or a plant. But genetically modified organisms such as soy beans or mice modified to be prone to cancer, can be patented. For a gene to be patented, it must be in it’s isolated sequence that is not naturally occurring. Today, approximately one fifth of the genes in your body belong to somebody else. This poses many problems concerning our health. If you have a disease, such as breast cancer and you want to get that tissue tested at the hospital, the hospital doesn’t have any say in the price of that test. It is up to the owner of that gene to charge any price they like. Having to pay royalties to use genes that have been patented have diverted scientists from studying diseases such as SARS due to the fear of infringement. Why would anybody want to patent a gene? Most biotech companies claim that the use of patents encourages investments in genetic research. But if there weren’t patents on genes, they would be available for research by many scientists, allowing for a full spectrum of information that could have practical applications to better society’s health. So, to answer the previous blog post, can corporations kill us? Yes. If you can’t afford a simple tissue test for breast cancer because the owner of the gene is charging royalties, how will you know if you have breast cancer? I find it unbelievable/frightening that somebody can claim ownership of a gene that’s within every human being. I don’t see gene patenting as benefiting anybody except for those who collect the royalties.

Further reading:

cnn – breast cancer gene patent lawsuit


2 Responses to “You can’t tell me what to do, you don’t OWN me!”

  1. After talking to a friend that goes to Boston University, I had no idea that this kind of stuff really happens. I am totally in the same boat as you, how can someone basically own MY genes? But I guess in our capitalistic society, nothing is off limits. The other scary thing, is that our technology has advanced so far, that there are tests to see if you have the genes for different types of diseases or abnormalities. Doctors are having an ethics question of whether or not to do the tests because they could not council patients after the results. Say Jane has the gene for some crazy disease. Now, there is a 50/50 chance that it will negatively affect her life. Do you run the test and find out, but then not be able to tell her what to do but have her live with the knowledge and worry, or don’t do the test and if it does impact her life then deal with it then? But what if she did get it and you could have stopped it? Or you treated her for it but nothing happened? Knowledge comes with such a heavy burden. I believe it was Children of Dune that the main character said “to know the feature is to be trapped by it”.

  2. Yes, GREAT questions! I’m so glad this novel brought this up for us. I look forward to it during discussion tonight!

    These issues all fall into the broader issue of Western notions of property, which would be helpful to know some background about. A good primer on the subject is Catherine MacPherson’s Property:

    Ideas about what it takes to make something “property” have changed greatly over time. MacPherson reminds us that “property” isn’t a THING, it’s a set of RIGHTS. With Capitalist society, MacPherson argues, property became understood as “private”, which it hadn’t before.

    It helps to know how the idea of property has changed to understand what Atwood is doing with property in TYOTF. MacPherson takes the rise of capitalist society as a turning point in our notions of property– i.e. “commodification”– and Atwood extends this to its logical extreme, suggesting that there is nothing under the sun that cannot be owned, extracted from, controlled, hoarded, etc. And needless to say, it’s not science fiction, the commodification of all life is happening right now.

    Property laws state that nature itself cannot be owned or patented. But how do we draw this line between nature and non-nature? Shane brought this up beautifully in his post.

    It sure does hint at a brave new world of human-nature relationships…. Thanks Atwood!

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