Bodily Ownership in Medical Research: A Nuanced Perspective

By DOMINIC SOLARI

 


Much of modern law in American society is devoted to the protection of property, usually meant to include one’s possessions and one’s own person. However, counterintuitively, there have been court cases where one’s own body, organs, and cells were not considered to be one’s property. One such case is Moore v. Regents of University of California. In this case, the court found that an individual did not maintain a proprietary interest in his cells after they had been removed from his body for the ostensible purposes of medical testing and diagnosis. [1] While, at first blush, this ruling may appear irrational, philosophical underpinnings of our conception of property provided by John Locke support that Moore, the plaintiff, did not retain a proprietary interest over the cells removed from his body and that he was not entitled to the products made from them.

In the case, Moore voluntarily allowed samples of blood and other bodily substances to be removed from his body to help diagnose and treat his hairy-cell leukemia. These bodily substances were used for the stated purpose, but were then also used by researchers to study the cells of hairy-cell leukemia. Those researchers eventually created a cell line which generated a profit for one Dr. Golde (Moore’s physician) and for the Regents of the University of California. When Moore discovered this, he brought multiple suits against Golde, the UC Regents, and others including a suit of conversion, which protects against interference with someone’s property. Besides the issue of malpractice discussed in the case, the court grappled with Moore’s claim that he retained a proprietary interest over those cells which the medical staff used in their research and even over the products derived from studying them. Ultimately, and rightly, the court found that Moore did not retain a proprietary interest over his cells, and he was certainly not entitled to the products and profits of the researchers who used his cells. [2]

The philosopher John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government contributes to the understanding of why Moore did not retain a proprietary interest over the cell line and other products created by the researchers from his bodily samples. In his writing, Locke attempts to explain the origins of private property in a world with abundant natural resources given to humankind collectively. Locke believes that property is acquired through labor. Labor is done with one’s person, Locke argues, so that labor is an extension of one’s person and can turn public resources into private property. [3] As a result, his theory has been called the “labor theory” of property.

Locke’s explanation provides that the researchers’ actions of exerting labor on Moore’s cells, which were identical leukemia cells that could hypothetically have been found in any patient with the same disease, made those cells, or at least the products created from them, those researchers’ own property. Essentially, the scientists’ acts of studying and exerting labor on a natural resource (made more convincing by the point that the cells they were studying were non-unique to Moore and occur “naturally” in multiple people) created property through their labor that was theirs alone, not Moore’s.

In conclusion, there is great philosophical weight behind the court’s decision in Moore v. Regents of University of California. Specifically, Moore’s claim of proprietary interest over his cells and the products derived from them is not justified by the principles of bodily autonomy and property established by John Locke. While the malpractice of the doctor’s not informing Moore about the usage of his cells once removed from his body is an entirely different matter, as the court found, there seems to be no foundation, in either the philosophical world or the legal one, for Moore’s claim that the research and products from his cells were his property. This sets an interesting precedent in the ever-evolving world of genetic engineering and cell-line patenting. Once again, it seems medical research is pushing the boundaries of what we thought possible and our most basic questions of who we are.

 

Notes

[1] Moore v. Regents of University of California, No. S006987 (Supreme Court of Ca. Jun. 9, 1990).

[2] Id.

[3] John Locke, Second Treatise of Government,11, Ed. Jonathan Bennett (2017).

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