Thursday, April 11, 2013

The Most Important Supreme Court Case Ever?

Forget all of the “gay marriage” chatter; the U.S. High Court will soon be ruling on what it means to be human altogether.

True or false: the Constitution of the United State is the utmost guaranteer of our rights as a peoples.

Now, most high school civics classes would teach you to say “true,” because most high school civics classes are taught by basketball coaches that are just there because it gives them a convenient excuse for tenure. The reality here -- the real reality -- is that our First-through-the-Twenty-Seventh-Amendment rights are more or less dictated to us by just nine people -- usually old, wrinkly white ones and at least one token black dude with a mustache.

I once read an argument from some guy that made a pretty convincing point about just how much power the Supreme Court has compared to other branches of Government. I mean, the Executive Branch can pass as many freedom-squelching acts as it wants, while state and federal legislators can pass as many rights-raping laws as the desire, but eventually…though hook, crook, or crooked hook…these matters are almost guaranteed to wind up on the floor of the Supreme Court of the United States, at some point.

Whether or not that’s a fair proposition is pretty much undebatable. There are approximately 320 million people in the U.S., and the guaranteed, soaked-to-the-bone civil rights of all 320 million of them, for all intents and purposes, lay wrested in the hands of just 0.000028125 percent of that ENTIRE POPULATION. And there not even bullshitting us with all of that “representative democracy” nonsense about this one; the sitting President, and the sitting President alone, has the ability to appoint anyone he/she/it wants, regardless of their qualifications as a constitutional interpreter, and unless you’re name is Robert Bork, there ain’t shit the other branches of government can do about it. And to make matters worse? These assholes are given LIFELONG terms in office. That means that, tomorrow, Antonin Scalia could butcher an entire orphanage, and until the Senate got its dookie together, he would REMAIN a Supreme Court Justice up until a formal impeachment hearing is held. And by the way; in the entire history of the United States, only ONE Supreme Court Justice has ever been impeached, and even then, the Senate agreed to let him keep his job until he croaked, anyway.

It is the Supreme Court…and really, the Supreme Court, alone…that has given American people a guaranteed right to buy condoms, get some kinds of abortions, not get turned down for a job simply because they are a woman with a child, do consensual two-adult anal or use a VCR if they want. They’ve also had the final say on whether or not something constitutes “worthwhile expression,” and admittedly, their tastes are a little fickle; per Supreme Court mandate, burning a flag is constitutionally A-OK, but topless dancing is something George Washington doesn’t think is all right. And it’s not like the criteria they use for defining things like “liberty” or “obscenity” is almost comically vague, or that the prevailing opinions of the Court tend to fluctuate considerably over time, or the Court ever makes insanely dubious decisions that in hindsight look absolutely inconceivable, or that Supreme Court Justices ever say outrageously Fascist things every now and then, or play hilarious pranks (like putting pubic hair in people’s Coca-Cola) on their colleagues.

A lot of incredibly important decisions were entrusted to these people. And as technology, medicine and changing attitudes about what constitutes humanity change, it’s pretty much a given that a lot of GINORMOUS decisions -- which could very well dictate our very fate as a species -- are in their respective courts. Hell, literally, in this case.

We could argue back and forth about what the most important Supreme Court case ever is (Marbury v. Madison? The Slaughterhouse Cases? Board of Airport Commissioners of Los Angeles v. Jews for Jesus, Inc?), but an upcoming case -- which will be argued  in front of the High Court next week -- may very well result in the most influential SCOTUS decision ever.

We’ve had cases that determined civil rights, the scope of civil protections, what constitutes libel, what the parameters are for eminent domain and whether or not one has the right to die and/or get executed in a state prison. But for the first time ever, the Supreme Court will be taking on a case that asks a question with absolutely gargantuan, indefinitely far-reaching implications - what, precisely, does it mean to be human?

Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc. -- outside of being a mouthful -- is a case that could have LONGSTANDING implications for U.S. citizens, conceivably, until human beings stop being altogether.

The argument, heavily truncated, is this: does a corporation have the ability to patent -- in other words, legally own -- human genes? Keep in mind, we’re not just talking about synthetic genes, but naturally-occurring ones. As in, the kind that are a part of our genetic code before we are even born. A slippery slope argument, to be sure, but since SCOTUS is so heavily dependent on precedents, a ruling in favor of Myriad Genetics, Inc. could feasibly lead to potential cases in which parties claim (and horrifyingly, could be legally declared) ownership of genetic sequences, DNA strands, individual nucleic acids or even full chromosomes. The implications on biosciences and medical research, quite obviously, would be leveled by such an outcome, with thousands of bio-tech firms scurrying to buy up as many “gene” patents as they could; and from there, the legalities get even more pants-pissingly-horrifying.

If an individual party has legal ownership over genes, couldn’t that also mean that said party could lay claim to at least partial legal ownership over the functions, organs and bodily structures formed by those genes? As a result, it’s not out of the realm of possibility that a company, with a patent on a particular gene affecting the formation of a human heart, could file a claim that any and all bioscience and medical modifications to that gene could constitute an illegal act. That means that, unless granted explicit permission (or payment of some heavy dues, which is the FAR likelier outcome), basic biogenetic research on the human heart would be a verboten act, by decree of Constitutional interpretation. Although absurd, granting legal ability to purchase genetic code at least lays out a groundwork for the “copyright” on organs, bodily systems (that better be an officially licensed endocrine system you are using, kid) and…taken to the utmost extreme…human life as a whole. Hey, the U.S. judicial system has already given certain organizations the basic right to patent naturally occurring crops and plants via seed trademarks, so it’s not like there isn’t just a bit of stare decisis in play here.

Ridiculous? Impossible? Absurd? Yeah, but keep in mind, this was the same Supreme Court that took damn near 150 years to FULLY come to terms with the idea that black people ought to have the same rights as white folks.

The argument against full Constitutional protection of gene rights is kinda’ apparent. For one thing, the dudes and dudettes at Myriad Genetics, Inc. (which, upon doing a lunchtime inquiry, I am convinced is some sort of bad sci-fi conglomerate villain transported to our actual reality, “Last Action Hero” style) are making a BROAD claim that, somehow, they, and they alone, ought to be able to conduct breast cancer research, since they “own” the trademark on two genes that are known to correlate with the disease. Now, just how in the bluest of hells can someone lay claim to ownership of any and all variations of a certain gene? Well, it’s because -- and I am NOT making this shit up, folks -- they believe they “created” the genes (which, once again, are NATURALLY OCCURRING)  by isolating said genes from the human body. A SCOTUS ruling in favor of Myriad Genetics, Inc. would, effectively, make it illegal for physicians to do genetic breast cancer testings, because the “patent” held by Myriad would prevent them from examining their “creations.” Imagine a world in which cardiologists are forbidden from performing heart surgeries, because some corporation out there holds a trademark on a specific artery. Folks, that crazy ass scenario is basically what Myriad Genetics is proposing, only on the genetic (and thusly, far wider reaching) level.

The immediate effects of a ruling in favor of Myriad would be devastating on several fronts. For one, it would completely cripple the entire breast cancer research field, and secondly? It would also kinda’ prevent people with cancer from GETTING genetic tests to see if they have cancer. Did I mention that these assholes are also trying to say they “own” something that’s been a natural, genetic component of the human condition for eons? Well, they are doing that, as well.

If there is a silver lining here, it’s the notion that the Court will almost assuredly rule in favor of the Association for Molecular Pathology. For one thing, in last year’s Mayo Collaborative Services v. Prometheus Laboratories, Inc. ruling, the SCOTUS determined that patents for “personalized medicine” were unconstitutional, and since the constituency of the Roberts Court hasn’t changed over the last 12 months, it’s reasonable to assume that they won’t elect to travel the opposite course on a similar -- and decisively, broader -- genetic patent case. And seeing as how the Supreme Court effectively ruled that abstract human thought couldn’t be copyrighted (no, seriously) in 2010’s Bilski v. Kappos decision, it similarly seems a little unlikely that the Court would pronounce that individual human beings don’t have ownership of their own genetic code, either.

Even so, there’s an off-chance that the Court could swing towards the opposite end of the spectrum, and it wouldn’t be a totally unprecedented ruling, either. In 1980, the Supreme Court ruled in Diamond v. Chakrabarty that synthetic genes and other “man-made microorganisms” were subject to copyright protection - - a decision that led to a boom in biotech patents for the better part of two decades.

No matter the outcome, the Supreme Court decision in this case is a true watershed moment not only in U.S. history, but human history as well. A ruling against Myriad serves as a precedent that would (hopefully) deter future claims to organic human matter, and an extremely unlikely -- but not impossible -- ruling in favor of Myriad opens up a Pandora’s Box of hitherto unthinkable bioscience scenarios.

While all of the Prop 8 and DOMA argumentation may be getting all the ink when it comes to Supreme Court news these days, I think it’s quite apparent that this much, MUCH-less publicized hearing has far greater bearings on not only a much vaster population, but has a much larger impact for future generations.

Is it an overstatement to declare Association for Molecular Pathology v. Myriad Genetics, Inc the most important case ever argued in front of the Supreme Court? To some, it may be an exaggeration, but considering the far-reaching implications of the matter, I think it’s a difficult proposition to argue against.

I mean, it’s a decision that only affects people that have a genetic structure, after all…


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