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April 15, 2013

The Tipping Point

Filed under: Observations — Tags: , , , , — sbj @ 5:22 pm

Time and again, on these pages, I have opined about the ills of our society. As often as not, that has boiled down to money, specifically corporate profit. We seem to have a established habit of opting for the choice that is healthier for the business bottom line than the human race in general.

Today, the Supreme Court will be hearing a case that would appear to put a magnifying glass on this trend. A case that could well be a benchmark on where we go as a species. The question boils down to this, should recouping a businesses efforts and expenses toward a medical breakthrough be more important than making said breakthrough generally available so that the benefits can be taken advantage of to save more lives.

What they will be debating in front of the court will be whether extracting part of a human DNA strand constitutes “invention” and therefore is protected by patent law, or if it is closer to “effort” which is great, but not subject to patent protection. Those arguing in defense of the patent will tell the judges that what they are doing with the strand segments is new and discernibly different than what occurs in nature (you can’t patent an act or state of nature). Those arguing against will say that, while the company’s work was good and certainly pain-staking and expensive… it does not fundamentally change the nature of the DNA components being tested and therefore is ineligible for patent protection.

At first I thought this was a horrible case of greed vs. saving lives. However upon reflection I realize it is beyond silly to assume that the other companies wanting to use these markers are doing so for humanitarian reasons… their bottom line stands to benefit significantly from this as well, which is likely their primary motivation for being in court.

However, at the end of the day, the Supreme Court is either going make a ruling that says one company gets to make as much money off of this advancement (toward paying off all of the research they did to get to this point), or multiple companies are going to be able to use this technology/science to save lives. And if they take the former path rather than the latter, this may be a bit of a tipping point for me (and not the good kind). I feel myself starting to give up, to lose hope… and if the Supreme Court agrees that the profit margins of a company are more important than the lives of those who might benefit from advances in gene sequencing… I’m not sure that my decent will be easily put in check down the road.

We have (d?)evolved from an age when Dr Salk, when asked about patenting his Polio vaccine said “There is no patent … could you patent the sun?” to an era where Myriad Genetics wants to own (in the form of a patent) part of the human genome. Sometimes the old ways are better… and certainly more honorable.

September 21, 2010

Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , , — sbj @ 4:23 pm

Sometimes, you read something and it resonates with you in a way you never expected.  Often for me, that occurs when Iam reading a passage from an old book, and it echos or mirrors concepts that exist presently. I had that experience while reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin over the weekend and coming upon the following passage.

The passage is discussing the difference in the treatment of slaves by Southern owners – who’s profit margins required considerably greater and more rapid productivity – versus those in more northerly locations.

… while the [more northern] master, content with a more gradual style of acquisition, has not those temptations to hardheartedness which always overcome frail human nature when the prospect of sudden and rapid gain is weighed in the balance, with no heaver counterpoint than the interests of the helpless and unprotected.

It can be argued (and was, over lunch, just this afternoon) whether Beacher Stowe was correct in assuming that “frail human nature” is easily overcome by evil forces such as greed, or, rather, that the frail trait of compassion is oft overcome by human nature itself (defining greed, for example, as a defining characteristic of human nature).  However what does seem inescapable is that today as much as 158 years ago, for the most part, compassion seems to only extend as far as one can comfortably reach.

Is reducing your consumption of plastic representative of compassion?  How about cutting your use of fossil fuels or embracing other ways to conserve?  Supporting renewable energy initiatives? Recycling?

I would submit to you that these are absolutely acts of compassion.  There are so many resources that are in limited supply.  Limited to the point that there is a clear end point to the resource based on current consumption trends.  Further, world populations continue to grow toward a point beyond which our planets resources (even the renewable ones) can sustain our existence.

Do the “helpless and unprotected” have to exist today to care about them, or to act in their best interests?  I do not believe so.  To me, any act of kindness toward a future generation (recycling, self-limiting the size of your family to help control over-population, etc.) is every bit as philanthropic and compassionate as one toward those in need today.

Awareness of injustices brought slavery to an end (and, at a slower pace, is advancing equality with regard to basic human rights).  Most people today are aware of, and acknowledge the importance of, equality. Perhaps, if there is more discussion and acknowledgement of the compassion, charity, and sacrifice required to meet the needs of future generations, everyone can find a similar level of urgency regarding the fate of our descendants, and the problems they now stand likely to face can be eliminated, or at least reduced, before they are even born.

(note: this is in no way to imply that no one is doing any of these things.  Many good people (in fact, you are probably one of them) are doing good things daily.  However, this fact does not change the reality that so many, particularly in business where profits are determined by efficiency etc. rather than by caring about individuals or groups of people, are not.  Slavery was, remember, a business, it was not personal; and it is in that context that the quote and my ponderings are cast.)

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