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"This is Mine!": Property and Ethical Rights of Your Body by Yourself and Others

by Maurice BernsteinBioethics Discussion
June 8th, 2014

 Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Discourse on Inequality, 1754  wrote "The first man who, having fenced in a piece of land, said 'This is mine,' and found people nave enough to believe him, that man was the true founder of civil society."  Of course, property rights has continued through the ages and their defense has let to law suits as well as wars.  The question in recent years as applied to the human body is how property rights are applied to the body or tissues or cells or the genetic DNA of the cells themselves.  I found a very interesting discussion of this issue titled "Whose Body Is It Anyway?  Human Cells and the Strange Effects of Property & Intellectual Property Law" written by Robin Feldman, Professor of Law and Director, Law & Bioscience Project, UC Hastings College of the Law and which can be accessed through this link.

She begins her analysis with the following:

"There are many aspects of our lives over which we can exercise what can be  called ownership, control, or dominion. However one conceptualizes ownership, it is  clear that people can hold such rights in many things, ranging from more concrete items,  such as automobiles, jewelry, or a plot of land, to more abstract concepts such as our  labor, our writings, our innovations, and even our commercial image.
Whatever else I might own in this world, however, it would seem intuitively obvious that I own the cells of my body. Where else could the notion ofownership begin, other than with the components of the tangible corpus that all would recognize as 'me'?
The law, however, does not view the issue so neatly and clearly. Through the rambling pathways of property and intellectual property law, we are fast approaching the point at which just about anyone can have property rights in your cells, except you. In addition, with some alteration, anyone can have intellectual property rights in innovations related to the information contained therein, but you do not.
I should be clear at the outset that I am talking about property and intellectual property rights to cells when they are no longer in your body. The sanctity of control over ones body remains reasonably intact, as long as the cells are attached to you. When cells are no longer attached, however, the legal landscape shifts, and the resulting tableau has a strong effect on the choices one can make with those cells that do remain in the body.
As so often happens in law, we have reached this point, not by design, but by the piecemeal development of disparate notions. Various doctrinal strands have emerged in isolation of each other, each appearing to solve a particular problem in its own domain. When gathered together, however, the doctrines form a strange and disconcerting picture."
As one can see from her discussion, the answer to my question has been legally muddled over the years.  My question to my visitors here is how do you look at the property rights of your own bodies? Should you have potential control of any cells or tissues removed from your body both when you are alive and even after death?  If the cells or tissues are used by others which end up in financial gain, should you or your  beneficiary also have access to that gain? How far should your exclaiming  "This is Mine" apply? ..Maurice.

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