Bones and Genes: Fortune’s Bones Redux

As a follow up to my post last week asking about human dignity, unburied bones and ownership of human cells, here are two related issues that appeared in the Sunday news.

The first item from Sunday’s Baltimore Sun is the belated report of a Reuters story about the controversy over disposition of King Richard III’s newly discovered remains uncovered in a municipal parking lot by the University of Leicester.  The long-lost remains of the King, who died in 1485, were exhumed, and the University was given permission to re-inter the remains in Leicester. But the King’s descendants objected claiming that they were not “consulted … over the exhumation and the license allowing the university to re-bury the King, and [that] this failure breached the European Convention on Human Rights.” They want the body buried in York.

The second item is an op-ed by two medical school academics, Jeffrey Rosenfeld and Christopher E. Mason, that appeared in Sunday’s Washington Post about Association for Molecular Pathology et al v. Myriad Genetics, et al, a case that will be argued in the Supreme Court on April 15th. This is important case that has been mentioned on this blog as recently as last February.  SCOTUS even featured a symposium spurred by the controversy. At issue is whether, on some level, human genes are patentable. Rosenfeld and Mason oppose patenting DNA.  On the other hand, much like the researchers discussing the HeLa cell, the respondents, Myriad Genetics, et al, argue that the issue is much narrower, namely whether the “human” aspect of the specific sequence of isolated human DNA is the result of the efforts of the respondent, and thus patentable.

The cases of Fortune, Henrietta Lacks, King Richard III and Myriad Genetics illustrate how human beings can lose control over what happens to their bodies (and body parts) during life as well as after death. For the living these issues raise questions of personal autonomy and, in the cases of the HeLa cell or BRCA sequence at issue in Myriad Genetics, perhaps property rights.  The problem is somewhat different for the dead.  Cases involving human remains, like King Richard III where there are identifiable next of kin, but little is know about the decedent’s wishes, seem to involve quasi-property rights.  Fortune’s case seems even clearer.  He has no known descendants and has always been treated as property in both life and death.  Nevertheless, I still think that there is some dignitary interest at play when human remains are involved.

I am more concerned, however, about the dramatic increase in corporatized scientific research that purports to benefit humankind.  These corporations can make “fortunes” from the body parts of others who never consented to have their body material used in this way.  More attention to the implications of this development is needed.


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2 Responses

  1. Steven Lubet says:

    I am not sure the term “next of kin” can be applied to Richard III, who died over 500 years ago. Assuming only 4 generations per century (thus, 20 generations), a descendant today would share only 1/1,048,576 of Richard’s dna. I suppose interbreeding (common among nobility) could make the relationship somewhat closer. On the other hand, even one additional generation — 21 in 528 years — would dilute the relationship to 1/2,097,152.

  2. There are any number of good books of late regarding “the dramatic increase in corporatized scientific research [in sundry domains of science] that purports to benefit humankind,” but I’d like to mention and recommend one in particular: Hilary Rose and Steven Rose, Genes, Cells and Brains: The Promethean Promises of the New Biology (Verso, 2012).