Early British settlers in North America used the concept of vacuum domicilium to justify seizing acreage from the people already living on the land. The concept was supported by the Church: God had created land in order that it might be productive. Unless land was actively creating wealth for the empire, or citizens thereof, the land was "idle," and to allow land to sit "idle" would fundamentally be unchristian.
The Western ethnocentricity in vacuum domicilium is obvious - there are ways to produce on land other than building fences and plantations. But what is less obvious, and just as important, is the anthropocentrism of the colonial history of the United States. In the eye of European empires, land existed in order that it might be claimed. Land did not have value in simply being, nor was it something that should remain available for global communal use. Land was a means, not an end. Native peoples or other Europeans were all that stood in the way of a seemingly endless plethora of natural resources, which Europeans seized on a scale previously unknown to the Western Hemisphere.
The scale has only expanded since then. Substitute "multinational corporations" for "European empires," and the story is almost the same. Today it is Chevron, Western Mining, and others that seek to take the remaining resources on the planet in order to make a fiscal profit. Less noticed is how the scale has contracted at the same time it expands.
On August 16, 2012, a federal US appeals court decided in favor of a corporation’s ability to patent human genes. The specific case was between Myriad Genetics and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The ACLU contended unsuccessfully that Myriad could not hold patents on two genes that cause breast cancer, because genes are "products of nature," and therefore cannot be patented. Nobel Prize Laureate James Watson argued on the side of the ACLU. Watson, the younger co-discoverer of the DNA double helix, goes further than the ACLU's legal argument, and addresses the problematic morality of gene patents.
"Life's instructions ought not be controlled by legal monopolies created the whim of Congress or the courts," he writes.
What is control other than ownership? And what is patenting other than staking a claim? Myriad Genetics did not invent the genes that cause breast cancer- they found them.
We can understand this new capitalistic venture – let’s call it genetic microcolonialism – as a contemporary recasting of the colonial narrative. Pharmaceutical companies play the part of the European empires. They fund scientists from all over the world to explore the human genome like the Western Hemisphere; they map the terrain, and claim everything of value for the expedition’s funders.
Like the land of the Americas, these genes, and the bodies to which they belong, are seen to have no value in their own right. Contrary to their marketing ploys, the purpose of corporate-funded research is not to cure disease. The bottom line of Myriad Genetics, like all other corporate research companies is the bottom line. The fact that the research might help people dying from a particular disease is a side effect of the corporation making money for its shareholders. (Read an independent study about the overwhelming markup of prescription medication.)
As people of faith and conscious, we must confront the Church’s (and the West’s) role in the colonization of the past, and resist the neocolonial models of today. But in a world of rapidly developing technology, we must also be mindful of the colonial mentality present in scientific research. Because we as a Western society don’t simply condone genetic microcolonialism – we fund it.
We take pride in the fact that our churches and schools raise money to support the foundations that fund cancer research. Some of us are cancer survivors, and literally all of us known someone who was been affected by cancer. We often support these foundations as a way to honor our deceased loved ones.
Personal grief, however, does not excuse blind support of an incredibly corrupt system of research and development. Research may create medication that we so desperately want, but genetic microcolonialism keeps this research in the hands of corporations. In order to grow their profits, corporations keep the cost of medication high. The high cost of medication prevents most people around the world from getting the treatment they need.
Too long we have been seduced by potential "miracles of science” that save, or have the potential to save, our loved ones. If everyone is truly a member of the Body of Christ, then we must care just as much about the lives of the people ignored – or used as guinea pigs – by the pharmaceutical industry. People of conscious need to drive the creation of a new model of public research that examines the cause of diseases and works toward prevention. The medication developed through research should not be sold for a profit, but rather distributed freely – like loaves and fishes.
All of this starts by questioning genetic microcolonization. We should not believe that this phenomenon is limited to pharmaceuticals. In 2011, the Public Patent Foundation sued the Monsanto Company for its patenting of genetically modified seeds. Not even addressing the environmental hazard of genetic modification, the patenting of seeds is much like the patenting of genes. Life cannot be patented, because it was not invented by us. Moreover, these patents are used to further marginalize the poorest of the poor.
We need to resist microcolonization in all its forms, but lest we fall into the trap of Western individualism, let us take note of those who are already standing up against gene patents. James Watson is not a lone voice. Doctors across the globe have been protesting gene patenting for well over a decade. Renowned Indian activist Vandana Shiva has collaborated with the international coalition “No Patents on Seeds” to work against Monsanto’s patents in Europe. Even farmers in the Philippines have found creative ways to oppose corporate genetic patents.
As the Church, we have a unique platform from which to educate the public, and resist to genetic microcolonialism. It’s about so much more than medicine or seeds. Fundamentally, it is a question about the nature of life. Can the makeup of our existence belong to any one person or group of people? Or does it belong only to that which created it?
Parts of our bodies, like parts our planet, do not exist simply to be discovered and exploited. We, like the seeds of life, are not vacuum domicilium. We are not unclaimed space that exists for corporate profit. The value of our genes, like the value of our planet, is in their inherent existence.
The value of the Church in this struggle against corporate greed is to be determined.
Photo by Guillaume Goyett, via Flickr.