LonCon3 #10: In a Proprietary World Who Owns Your Body?

Panellists: Simon Bradshaw (intellectual property lawyer), Richard Ashcroft (bioethics professor), Jody Lynn Nye, Simon Ings (New Scientist), Carolina Gómez Lagerlöf (patent expert), Joan Paterson (doctor – genetics specialist)

Who owns medical implants – the patient, the health service, the company that made them? Should the patient have access to details of the hardware and software? If an artificial organ is keeping you alive, does the company get to turn it off if you don’t keep paying the ever rising bills? What happens when companies close? When you move from mechanical implants to genetic treatment, who owns the DNA inserted into your cells? Will you become a product wholly owned by Big Pharma?

Healthcare technology is evolving and ethical questions are being raised.

Software and gadgets are now available to monitor and record many aspects of our personal health and are available to the public. This self-tracking phenomena is sometimes referred to as ‘quantified self‘ [ Economist | Technori | Quantified Self ].

Wearable computing is able to sense heart rate, brain activity, blood pressure, insulin levels, quantity and quality of sleep – the list is endless. This data can be used to stay healthy, monitor certain health conditions, help with weight loss or keeping fit. But who has access to the information gathered? If Wi-Fi and Bluetooth are enabled, they’re open to hacking. Insurance companies would surely kill to get their hands on this data. Therefore, security is paramount.

Henrietta Lacks never gave permission, nor did her family, to use her cells for research purposes. There is more mass of her around today in cancer cells than when she was alive, says Bradshaw. Big pharma have made billions of dollars off the back of this research, so are her family entitled to any of the profits?

Lacks died before she could receive any benefit from the research. So, do the results belong to the community at large, for the common good? But if permission was never given, then it’s exploitation, is it not? Profit was made. People are sued for unethical practice all the time. Hmm.

Factoid: In some countries your credit rating is affected by possession of healthy organs. You’re viewed as rich because you can sell them.

Artificial implants and mechanical replacement organs are a tricky issue. Paying for them, especially at their inception, will be extremely expensive. If you’re unable to keep up payments, will we see Repo Men hunting down and extracting the technology, effectively terminating the lives the implants were extending?

Again, as Almost Human showed, they’re open to hacking and the possibility of their functioning being held to ransom. Questions have to be asked about what to do with these devices once a person has died. Recycling them is the most cost-effective solution, but would you really want a second, third, or fourth-hand organ? And then there’s unauthorized modification – after-market upgrades – which invalidate warranties.

Factoid: I recently learned that breast implants are removed by undertakers before cremation.

Brain devices could assist Alzheimer’s victims live independently. We’re then, however, faced with the prospect of performing a Turing test on a living person to determine the computer chip’s ability to mimic intelligent human behaviour.

***Orphan Black SPOILERS ahead***

Viewers of Orphan Black will be familiar with the ethics of human ownership. A cloning programme was setup, possible only due to certain patented cloning procedures and DNA manipulation. Since those processes are owned by a corporation, the results of them are also property of that organisation – i.e. the clones themselves. Are the clones human with human rights? They live, they breath, grow and die, although not all are able to reproduce because they weren’t designed to do so. Little more than lab rats, they’re fighting for their freedom, for their right to privacy and self-determination.

In the patent world, there’s a difference between a discovery and an invention, but in the field of genetics there are many things that can be classed as both.

*I added the sci-fi examples.

Recommended Reading


4 thoughts on “LonCon3 #10: In a Proprietary World Who Owns Your Body?

  1. Thanks for your updates on LonCon, they’ve been very interesting & this one such s good reminder of how SF engages with real issues and ethical science dilemmas.


    1. Thanks! I’m glad you’ve enjoyed them. I absolutely love this side of SF. I was livid when I heard Almost Human had been cancelled. It’s one of my favourite shows I watched this year. Practically every episode showcased a different aspect of possible near-future technology and the ethics and pitfalls of creating and using it, and other than Orphan Black I can’t think of another show that’s done something similar.


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