Archive | September, 2010

Gene Patenting

30 Sep

Ms Melissa Clarke MP, a Labor Party member and the federal member for Freemantle, publicly called for an amendment to the Patents Act 1990 (Cth) (Patents Act) that would prevent entities patenting human genes. The issue was the subject of a report by the Australian Law Reform Commission which was tabled in Federal Parliament in August 2004. The report was also used as a submission to the incomplete Senate inquiry conducted by the last Parliament.

At the moment, several companies own genes linked to disease or illness in Australia, including genes related to epilepsy and breast cancer. Those companies assert that they are entitled to decide what medical research is conducted on those genes and who undertakes that research. Ms Clarke said:

“In 2008 a Melbourne company, Genetic Technologies, ordered all Australian hospitals and clinical laboratories to stop testing for breast cancer as it claimed that such testing infringed the exclusive licence it had obtained from US genetics company, Myriad. There was a public outcry and the company backed down, but they still claim they have the legal right to insist upon nobody else doing it.”*

At the moment there exists a panoply of problems with patent law in relation to genes. Once a gene is patented, research on that gene is certain to be expensive considering that licensing costs must be paid, and these directly and unequivocally stagnate useful medical research in Australia. Public health is a victim of these patents not only due to the fact that research is more expensive, but also thanks to the increased expense of testing for genes in people for which they may pose a health risk.

Submissions to the commission’s inquiry included some that claimed that those granting patents for genes were not sufficiently qualified or knowledgeable to do so, and as a result such patents were approved far too frequently when compared with the patent offices of other countries. It is indeed true that gene patents generally cover broad subjects and are essentially too general and abstract to be useful in their own right.

All the aforementioned issues could be addressed without disallowing gene patents entirely, and thus the commission recommended a set of amendments that would diminish but not abolish gene patents. A frequent theme of submissions, however, and an argument employed by Ms Clarke, is that human genes are “natural phenomena” that are by no means akin to an invention and therefore not worthy of a patent.

Ms Clarke’s request for Labor to propose this amendment to the Act, and her commitment to propose it herself if the party does not, demonstrates an admirable intelligence and audacity and may be a reflection on the benefits of what has been given the rather trite title: “the new paradigm”.

Gene Patents

*A related account of the rather awkward behavior of the company can be found in this Sydney Morning Herald report.

Not Shaven

30 Sep

Once upon an August dreary, while I pondered weak and weary,
Over a bland and boring voting ballot, I so softly swore:
“Here I’m nodding, nearly napping, they say that I’m to start remapping
The future of Australia – well I must say it is quite a bore!
All this candidate selection – all of it is quite a chore!”
This I said, and nothing more.

Ah distinctly I remember, having been a union member,
I thought I’d vote for Labor, for they may stop the dreaded war.
“Half-bred fool!” I told myself, “What about the Ross Ice Shelf?”
Greens may still fight global warming – warming, yes, and so much more –
Greens may save this planet from the carbon, yes, and so much more –
And they may stop the dreaded war.

And the soft and certain scratching of my pen to vote for Greens
Excited me somewhat, for it’s the Liberals that I do deplore;
Then I noticed, much to my despair, that when I saved the polar bear,
I’d forgotten that the Greens smoke pot – a practice I abhor –
A nasty habit I deplore: now they deserve my vote no more!
Global warming I’ll ignore.

Presently my soul grew stronger; hesitating then no longer,
“I’ll save my vote, not having known this rampant drug use heretofore.”
I reached into the vote collection, not trying to sway the just election,
But merely trying to reach the vote I’d duly cast seconds before.
Just as I held it in my hand, the precious vote I did adore,
Said the officer: “Nevermore.”

Back towards my dwelling turning, all my soul within me burning,
I felt anger and felt sadness beyond what I had felt before;
I did not want their marajuiana in my government, my Parliament,
Each second grew my discontent, I felt myself a voting whore –
Tricked by the left, the Greens and commies, tricked to do this voting chore –
There came a sound at my front door.

Suddenly there came a tapping, an ostentatious, angry rapping,
And then a sudden, bitter snapping: “Open up your wide front door!”
I went to see the sullen stranger, wary of whatever danger
He may may feel he must impose on me and my outrage galore.
Much to my disgust and horror, it was Bob Brown at my front door –
This I saw, and nothing more.

“Begone, foul beast!” I cried towards it. “And also I’d like to submit
A request that you might stop your drug use, I ask of you, I do implore!”
The Honourable Member, smoking grass, said duly unto me, alas,
“Capitalist! I demand your silence – go back to your department store.”
And I replied: “Poor commie scum, smoke your filthy pot no more!”
To which he said: “No, nevermore.”

Although the Senator was yelling, trying to break into my dwelling,
The Greens got many seats and had much power on the floor.
Their governance was good – I found I voted how I should,
For soon they brought a carbon tax and other measures I adore.
All in all the Greens did well, despite the hemp they always wore,
I’ll not vote Labor anymore.

Military Justice

28 Sep

Over the past day, debate has erupted concerning the prosecution of three soldiers for various crimes, including manslaughter, dangerous conduct, failing to comply with a lawful general order and prejudicial conduct. The charges relate to an incident in which six civilians died in an operation conducted by the Australian Defence Force in Orūzgān province in January 2009. Two of the soldiers have announced that they will contest the allegations when they go to trial next year:

“We will strenuously defend the charges and we look forward to the opportunity of publicly clearing our reputations, as well as the reputation of the ADF.”

Some participants, in particular those affiliated with the military, claim that the charges are inimical to the morale and utility of the troops in Afghanistan. It is disturbing to read reports of commentators who believe that soldiers should be above the rule of law or – in the case of Felix Sher, a father of a deceased soldier – that we should abandon the Geneva Convention:

“It makes life difficult [for Australian soldiers]. It’s all very well going by the Geneva Convention, but these insurgents don’t operate under the Geneva Convention.”

Apart from the issue of morale, others have claimed that the charges would endanger the lives of Australian soldiers. The alternative to instituting appropriate legal action in response to such incidents is turning a blind eye to soldiers committing acts akin to those of this US Corporal, who shot Afghani civilians as a sport, mutilated their corpses, posed for photos with them, then did the best he could to make the incident look like a sad necessity. In any case, not charging the soldiers could allow for proceedings to be commenced in the International Criminal Court, which could only be worse for Australia and the ADF than using the soldier-friendly domestic system.

Another interesting aspect of the announcement is that the charges would be heard by a court martial. It is the first time Australian soldiers have been subject to a court martial in connection with civilian deaths during combat operations. The Australian Military Court was declared unconstitutional last year after a strange tea bagging incident on the part of one soldier who decided to challenge the Court’s jurisdiction, and so courts martial have replaced said Court until the similarly named Military Court of Australia is established in 2011. The High Court’s judgment was fascinating, albeit inconvenient for the government, and one can only hope that Parliament establishes a court without the legal faults of the short-lived AMC.

The reporting of this issue has been substandard at best. Nine and The Courier Mail have reported that five children were killed in the incident, while the ABC claims it was four. Some sources quote the Director of Military Prosecutions in her assertion that the accused are “former soldiers”, while The Australian claims that they are still soldiers. Astonishingly, another story filed by The Australian on the same day by a different journalist contradicts the aforementioned report from the same newspaper in regards to whether the soldiers have left the ADF or not. ABC News 24 aired a comment by Neil James of independent think-tank the Australian Defence Association claiming that no Australian soldier had ever been charged with manslaughter, a claim that stands in direct contrast to an Adelaide Now (i.e. The Adelaide Advertiser) report that read:

“Military experts said the last time manslaughter charges were laid against Australian Diggers was in the Vietnam War – involving a soldier and an officer.”

The faults didn’t stop there. Some sources claimed that the incident was at Tarin Kowt, other said that it was 12 kilometres away. Some claimed the incident had not been predicted, but the Sydney Morning Herald predicted it three months ago. Much of this is just poor journalism, but it’s also possible that it’s at least partly due to the ADF’s irrational aversion to journalists that they don’t control and its dangerous habit of keeping information from the public. But that’s for Media Watch to decide.

Good Bones

28 Sep

Margaret Atwood’s 1993 accomplishment Good Bones is an organic, raw and infinitely witty set of assorted thoughts and creations. The composition consists of some 27 short pieces, ranging from streams-of-consciousness to one-way dialogue to descriptive prose. Atwood’s criticism of society is iconoclastic and her perceptions of the human condition are unrelentingly harsh and honest. The book is sprinkled with unabated feminism and criticism of how humans behave in relation to animals, the environment and each other.

Good Bones concerns itself largely with gender identity and divides. Atwood illustrates the contrivances in how male and female are perceived by society through the highly effective and oftentimes shocking use of humour.

The female body has many uses. It’s been used as a door-knocker, a bottle-opener, as a clock with a ticking belly, as something to hold up lampshades, as a nutcracker, just squeeze the brass legs together and out comes your nut. It bears torches, lifts victorious wreaths, grows copper wings and raises aloft a ring of neon stars; whole buildings rest on its marble heads.

It sells cars, beer, shaving lotion, cigarettes, hard liquor; it sells diet plans and diamonds, and desire in tiny crystal bottles. Is this the face that launched a thousand products? You bet it is, but don’t get any funny big ideas, honey, that smile is a dime a dozen.

The piece’s use of allusion ranges from incidental remarks such as above to entire stories being warped and well-directed mutations of fairy tales, Shakespeare or Bram Stoker. Atwood’s subject matter becomes bleak and somewhat morbid in compositions such as Hardball, where she depicts a dystopic society: “What wonders it contains, especially for those who can afford it!” Despite this, “breathing is out of the question” and rats and humans are considered staple foods. Such morose topics do not prevent Atwood from colouring Good Bones with insightful witticisms and a humorous tone.

The most prevalent and consistent feature of the texts in Good Bones is its ever-present disgust and the unjustified beliefs, poorly formed preconceptions and façade surrounding the absurd that society entertains at its peril. The responder is the victim of a panoply of intellectual deceptions that challenge the values of society at large.

Good Bones is a fascinating and highly creative text. It moves between dark and funny with immense ease, and everything is something else turned on its head. Irony is the watchword of the book, and postmodern prose its war cry. A reader can only be advised to remain prepared for anything.

I always thought it was a mistake, calling you Hamlet. I mean, what kind of a name is that for a young boy? It was your father’s idea. Nothing would do but that you had to be called after him. Selfish. The other kids at school used to tease the life out of you. The nick-names! And those terrible jokes about pork.

I wanted to call you George.

I am not wringing my hands. I’m drying my nails.

Euthanasia

27 Sep

With the Greens preparing a bill that would repeal a ban on the Northern Territory legislating to allow euthanasia, the positive effects of having a minority government control the lower house of the 43rd Parliament have become apparent. Bob Brown aims to allow the Northern Territory to re-enact the voluntary euthanasia laws that it passed in 1995 (The Rights of the Terminally Ill Act 1995 (NT)) and were overruled by Federal Parliament two years later. Despite this, the Northern Territory Chief Minister and Dr Phillip Nitschke have each made comments suggesting that they believe the Territory will not reintroduce euthanasia legislation in the near future. The government of Tasmania and a government MP in Victoria have each expressed an interest in examining the issue. Most Australian states have rejected euthanasia legislation, including South Australia which has stubbornly rejected it five times since 2000.

The debate surrounding euthanasia is difficult to conduct. It is one that is heavily influenced by demagoguery, religion and personal experience. The vast majority of countries do not allow euthanasia of any sort; the practice is legal in parts of Europe, some States in the US and Japan. It is no longer legal in any part of Australia. Despite this, it is widely practised by doctors in a tempered form through the excessive use of painkillers on terminally ill patients to shorten their lives.

Those who support euthanasia cite the widespread unofficial use of painkillers to induce a faster and less painful death in dying patients, saying that such practices should be regulated and reviewed. Others claim that this would only legitimise a technique that should not be permitted. Some 80 – 85% of Australians support voluntary euthanasia, for it is surely just to allow somebody in terrible pain, with no discernible quality of life, to choose to die. The “slippery slope” argument, which claims that allowing voluntary euthanasia would soon lead to allowing involuntary euthanasia, is frequently employed by anti-euthanasia groups. Christopher Pyne justified his stance on euthanasia in the same way on the ABC’s Q and A on the 20th of September:

“…in the communities where they had introduced euthanasia, like Holland, there were many examples, and 1200 at the last count, of people who were involuntarily euthanised. So once you open the door to voluntary euthanasia you can’t be certain where the boundaries will actually end.”

This strange statistic seems to have come from the vile Australian Christian Lobby. It is indeed true that the Netherlands is more or less the only jurisdiction to allow non-voluntary euthanasia, and even then it is of an indeterminate legal status. The Netherlands tolerates the euthanasia of children where parents, doctors and social workers have approved it. In the past seven years, twenty-two cases of euthanasia performed on children were reported – a far cry from the 1200 Pyne discussed. In each of these cases, the suffering of the subject was incredibly high and could not be alleviated. In most cases, the victim would have had no ability to communicate whatsoever and would have been entirely dependent on a hospital’s facilities to keep them alive. It is these cases, and similar cases in adults, where not allowing euthanasia is nothing short of cruel. Counter-arguments cite the inherent value of life and the effects of euthanasia on relatives, but rarely acknowledge that the patient, rather than the legislature, is ethically and practically better placed to consider these factors. Ethicist Leslie Cannold supports euthanasia:

The point is that if you pass a law that says, “My values, which is that I believe certain things about life and you ought not to be taking yours,” that impedes my capacity to follow my values. Where if you pass a law that says everybody has a choice, you can do what you believe is right and I can do what I believe is right.

Hydrocephalus

This baby, which suffers from Hydrocephalus, could be euthanised only in the Netherlands

Climate Change and International Politics

25 Sep

Ice

George Monbiot is a British author and journalist with a history of inspired and untempered political activism. In his weekly column in The Guardian, he has illustrated a bleak and hopeless depiction of the future of addressing climate change through law reform. He claims that consequential action on the part of governments is unlikely with a result in Copenhagen that could only be described as utter failure and no considerable consensus on any matter between countries. Monbiot decries the feeble policies of the United Kingdom and European Union in no uncertain terms; in short, he claims that “the harsh reality we have to grasp is that the process is dead”.

With disproportionate weight given to those too hopeful, stupid or short-sighted to make a reasonable consideration of the evidence and comprehend its ramifications, governments have realised that it is politically undesirable to take any meaningful steps to combat this self-induced horror that has the potential to wreak unspeakable damage on all life on earth, including the basic mechanisms that allow society to function.

The domestic situation may seem slightly more hopeful now that we have a government that is prepared to introduce a carbon tax, but the international situation is far worse. Although Monbiot has presented a considered and well-informed view, he has underestimated the ability for people to changing circumstances. Despite the fact that system justification leads people to resist change, unavoidable developments are consistently adapted for more easily. The likelihood of any considerable action being taken by governments to slow climate change in the near future is unlikely. As a direct result, it can be concluded that little will be done to address climate change at all before the impact it will have on the environment and the economy becomes apparent. As soon as the full ramifications of climate change begin to take hold, however, there is little doubt that the governments and people of the world would acknowledge and address them. The environment will suffer and the economy will suffer; the cost of inaction is far greater than the cost of action. This will have been foretold in the Garnaut Climate Change Review and the Stern Review, but until an immediate and empirical imperative to act materialises no action would have been taken.

There is little doubt that serious and irreversible damage will have been will have been done to the environment and the economy. In the decades to come, it will be clear to all that the benefits of strong, early action would have outweighed the benefits of the acquiescence that was to be. International treaties will be signed and a colossal disaster averted. With the failure of Copenhagen, the approaching expiry of the Kyoto Protocol and the political apathy of developing nations contributing to a belated response to this situation, Monbiot is correct in his grim view of international politics in relation to climate change. Nevertheless, his claims do not amount to a disastrous set of consequences but a result that affirms the view that change of any sort is impossible without a serious problem. What is perhaps most disheartening about this likely course of events is that we will not learn from it and will gladly set about placing ourselves in parallel circumstances again. We are truly a dim-witted species.