Lives versus Profits

NEW YORK – The United States Supreme Court recently began deliberations in a case that highlights a deeply problematic issue concerning intellectual-property rights. The Court must answer the following question: Can human genes – your genes – be patented? Put another way, should someone essentially be permitted to own the right, say, to test whether you have a set of genes that imply a higher than 50% probability of developing breast cancer?

To those outside the arcane world of intellectual-property rights, the answer seems obvious: No. You own your genes. A company might own, at most, the intellectual property underlying its genetic test; and, because the research and development needed to develop the test may have cost a considerable amount, the firm might rightly charge for administering it.