Monday, April 5, 2010

Owning Life

When I was still in high school I wrote a paper in which I said that I defined religion as "the way one accounts for the existence of Life in the universe."

For that matter, if you look around and take a deep breath, how do you account for the existence of anything and everything at all?

Whether you believe in a divine Creator, a spiritual force, higher energy or intelligence or even nothing at all, you have to admit that stuff was here long before we got here, and may be here long after we're gone.

So it was with some amusement and a twinge of horror that I watched the 60 Minutes segment last night on patenting genes. It seems that women have been denied gene therapy for cancer because the rights to any gene that would need to be tested and manipulated for any cure is owned by a corporation.

This is not a new issue; it was addressed in mainstream fiction by Michael Chricton in his thriller, Next.

But the piece on 60 Minutes was not fiction – it involved real people with real lives who were being affected by a legal abstraction for profit over their wellbeing.

Attorneys for the corporation which owned the patent made the usual arguments that research would come to a halt or suffer if ownership is not granted to those who make discoveries in biology that would ensure their prosperity.

Still, it seems to me that the executives of the company which owns the genetic patent in question would still live quite well if they did not enjoy complete dominion over those who needed their discovery to live healthy lives.

But more obvious is the issue of ownership of life itself—or ownership of anything one has not oneself created.

We're still wrestling with the legitimacy of European colonists claiming lands on which they planted their flags as their own.

With respect to genes, this is the stuff or blueprint of life itself. Has any human ever created life from inanimate matter?

Science now speculates that life "evolved" from organic material, but where did the impetus or energy for living come from?

To me, it is the very height of arrogance and presumption for any person to claim ownership of something that was here before he or she ever arrived--based on its discovery rather than its invention or creation.

To be sure, those who make such remarkable discoveries are to be held in the highest esteem, and should be able to profit from their talents and insights.

But just as we are finally having a conversation over whether health care itself should be a profit-making activity, and insurance companies should be able to withhold care for the sake of their bottom line, it seems that it's time that we take a deep look at where we stand with respect (pun intended) to life itself.

There is certainly speculation that we are at the point in our scientific advancement where we might actually assume control over our own evolution. Our athletes are faster and stronger than ever, and our science is uncovering the secrets behind life and the universe.

But is getting richer, bigger, stronger and smarter the ultimate purpose of our existence?

Those with children, or believers in something higher, generally espouse another purpose—making life better for those around them and acknowledging their connection with life itself.

Patenting a gene enforces separation—I own this (life) and you can't have it unless you pay me.

Acknowledging connection brings in a higher level of intelligence and perhaps—love and reverence.

These are human values beyond accounting or a balance sheet.

Some countries do not recognize genetic patents while civil libertarians are challenging their validity in the courts.

But in an age when the Supreme Court has held that corporations have the same rights of individuals to contribute funds to candidates, I have my doubt how that will turn out.

At some point humans may have to appeal to a court higher than the one comprised of Ivy League grads and lawyers.

I have to wonder when the owners of genetic patents might actually meet a Creator. At that point would conscience and fear finally kick in, or would they try to buy their way into heaven with their stock options?

We can have legitimate disagreements about when life begins and even where it came from or what it is—but as to who or what it belongs to—that needs to remain an issue for something or someOne that hasn't been interviewed on 60 Minutes.