Is gene patenting akin to slavery?

Home » BLOGS » Liberator Online Archives » Is gene patenting akin to slavery?

(From the Ask Dr. Ruwart section in Volume 18, No. 21 of the Liberator Online. Subscribe here!)

QUESTION: Regarding the issue of patented genes: If a person — their body — is made up of genes, is not owning the genes which make up that person’s body akin to slavery? Slavery being the ownership of another person?

MY SHORT ANSWER: The usual way that a company patents a person’s genes is to take a blood or tissue sample from a willing donor during a study to test new drugs. Usually, the donor signs an “informed consent” explaining that the company might make — and patent — a gene product from the blood or tissue without any further compensation to the donor.

The patent entitles the company to use or sell the gene or gene product from the donated sample only. The person is not owned, and can’t be forced to give additional samples, so he or she isn’t what we’d normally consider a slave.

However, such patents do create property rights issues, because, in theory at least, a donor couldn’t sell the same gene or gene products to another company or person. In my opinion, the problem is the U.S. Patent Office, which should not have allowed such patents to be issued in the first place. However, because the FDA requires so much expensive testing for new drugs, companies wouldn’t develop gene products, even if they cured major diseases, without the patent protection that allows them to recover their costs.

The Supreme Court, it seems, agrees with me. In a landmark decision against Myriad in June, 2013 (Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, 569 U.S. 12-398 (2013)), the Supreme Court ruled that genes can’t be patented because they occur in nature. Since the U.S. Patent Office has already granted a couple thousand gene patents, this decision will create a lot of economic chaos. It will limit the development of genetic diagnostic testing as well, because the cost of regulatory FDA hurdles won’t be recoverable in many cases without these patents.

I was in the pharmaceutical industry during the time that FDA regulations were increasing. The company I worked for, and others, made the decision not to develop unpatented products because of this problem. We need to get rid of this excess regulation so that patents are no longer necessary for drug development.

in Liberator Online Archives by Mary Ruwart Comments are off
About the author: Mary Ruwart

Dr. Mary Ruwart is a leading expert in libertarian communication and author of the international bestseller Healing Our World. She is also author of Short Answers to Tough Questions, in which you will find a collection of her answers from this column. In this column she provides Liberator Online readers with answers to questions libertarians are often asked. Dr. Ruwart is a research scientist, ethicist, and a libertarian author/activist. She received her B.S. in biochemistry in 1970 and her Ph.D. in Biophysics in 1974 (both from Michigan State University). She subsequently joined the Department of Surgery at St. Louis University and left her Assistant Professorship there to accept a position with The Upjohn Company of Kalamazoo, Michigan in 1976. As a senior research scientist, Dr. Ruwart was involved in developing new therapies for a variety of diseases, including liver cirrhosis and AIDS. Dr. Ruwart left Upjohn in 1995 to devote her time to consulting and writing. Her communications course for scientists (www.speakingforscientists.com), covering written, oral, and poster presentations has received high praise from attendees. She also provides consulting services for nutraceutical companies, clinical research organizations, and universities. Currently, Dr. Ruwart serves as Chair of the International Society for Individual Liberty (www.isil.org) and Secretary of the Foundation for a Free Society (www.f4fs.org). She has been an At-Large member of the Libertarian National Committee (www.lp.org), served on the Board of both the Heartland Institute (www.heartland.org; Michigan Chapter) and the Fully Informed Jury Amendment Association (www.fija.org).