Ethical Dilemmas in Genetic Patenting – a Utilitarian Perspective

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Ethical Dilemmas in Genetic Patenting – A Utilitarian Perspective On August 16th, the U.S. Federal Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that Myriad Genetics in Salt Lake City, Utah, had the right to patent ‘isolated’ genes that are linked to ovarian and breast cancers.1 This means that Myriad Genetics can prevent others from using the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes in research. It also means that Myriad can charge high prices from companies that wish to use these genes. This has raised arguments about the ethical implications of patenting genes. Looking at the issue of genetic patents within the context of utilitarianism, it’s an unethical practice. Utilitarianism is the viewpoint that decisions are only ethical if the outcome benefits the majority of humanity. For example, if a person were to kill a dictator in order to save a country, it would be considered an ethical decision. The death of a dictator contributes to the greater good of humanity, and the end justifies the means. In the view of a utilitarian, companies ‘owning’ genes doesn’t contribute to the greater good of humanity. It’s unethical because it drives up medical costs, it limits patients options in medical care and stifles innovation in creating gene therapies that could benefit humanity. One objection a utilitarian would have to genetic patenting is that it drives up medical costs for patients. Companies that own patents will have the right to charge other companies who wish to use the gene for research, diagnostic and therapeutic reasons.2 This cost is then passed onto the patients who need to get these diagnostic tests or therapies. In the case of Myriad, their patented genes are linked to ovarian and breast cancer. Diagnosing and treating these cancers are already expensive for those suffering with them. If the companies that create these diagnostic tests and treatments need access to the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, they must pay Myriad a licensing fee to extract, purify and use the genes for research. This...
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