Who Owns Your Body?





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Published on May 2, 2013

Check out: http://www.aclu.org/genepatents

The U.S. Supreme Court is about to decide whether a private company can own a piece of our bodies. Right now, a company called Myriad Genetics has a patent on two genes both closely associated with breast and ovarian cancer. The gene patents not only violate the First Amendment and block diagnostic testing and research that could lead to cures, they limit women's options regarding their medical care.

The patent system was designed to grant certain rights to inventors for their inventions in order to reward and encourage human ingenuity. But genes are naturally-occurring parts of our bodies, not inventions. Researchers identify genes, they don't invent them. U.S. law recognizes this differentiation; there is long-standing legal precedent that "products of nature" are not patentable. You can't patent iron or other basic elements, for example.

The ACLU believes that genes and the relationship between genes and disease are products and laws of nature that should never have been considered as patentable subject matter. Along with PUBPAT, we challenged gene patenting before the Supreme Court because we believe that the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has violated patent law by granting patents over an area of intellectual activity that should not be covered by patents, and in doing so, is stifling free speech and scientific research.

You also may have read Angelina Jolie's poignant op-ed piece in The New York Times, where she spoke from the heart about her decision to have a double mastectomy after discovering that she carries the BRCA1 gene. As she wrote: "It has got to be a priority to ensure that more women can access gene testing and lifesaving preventive treatment, whatever their means and background, wherever they live. The cost of testing for BRCA1 and BRCA2, at more than $3,000 in the United States, remains an obstacle for many women." Lifting the patents and making the testing more widely available can remove that obstacle.


- Right now, a private company called Myriad Genetics owns a piece of your body. That's a really bad idea. It patented two genes: breast cancer 1 and 2, or BRCA 1 and 2. Certain mutations on these genes give women a strong chance of getting breast or ovarian cancer. The problem is, Myriad Genetics says because of the patents, it's the only one allowed to test these genes. That's more than a bad idea. The law says no one can get a patent on products of nature or laws of nature, but Myriad says once it removes the genes from your body, it owns them. That's not how the law works. For example, you can't patent a mineral. Take iron. It's found in rock. To use iron, you have to remove it from the rock. Now, you can patent the process of removing iron from rock, and you can patent the things you make from that iron, but you cannot patent the iron itself, even after you take it out of the rock, because it's still iron. That makes sense, right? Well, the same laws apply when it comes to your genes. Right now, only Myriad Genetics is allowed to test for mutations on BRCA 1 and 2. You have to pay them big bucks for the test because there's no competition. And in most cases, you can't get a second test elsewhere, which you'd probably want if you were thinking about removing your breasts or ovaries. And no scientist outside of Myriad can work on these genes to offer better tests to patients or help find a cure. Are you getting the picture? It's a really bad idea. The U.S. Supreme Court is about to decide whether a private company like Myriad can own a piece of us. Let's tell the world what we think.


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