The Patent Gene

I was born with a fatal flaw. I have a faulty gene which, left unimpeded, would cause me to waste away. First my muscle tissue would wither, then my major organs would fail one after another, then my heart would stop and I would die. My mother and father were told this fact not long after my birth. But there was a solution, the doctors who delivered me told them. A corporation had created an artificial gene and had it patented. This gene could be injected into people like me to override the faulty gene. The doctors said they could put them in touch.

My parents were, of course, delighted. But they wondered how they could possibly afford this fancy gene. My father had a decent job in an office and my mother as a hairdresser, but they were hardly rich. Oh no, the corporation told them at their first meeting, don’t worry about that – there is no upfront fee. You see, you rent the gene, you don’t buy it – it will always belong to the corporation. But for a small monthly fee – less than your monthly mobile phone bill – your child can keep it inside him for the rest of his life.

What are the side effects? My parents asked the obvious question, though they were barely able to contain their joy at discovering there was a way to ‘cure’ my faulty gene. There are no side effects, said the corporation. Your child’s faulty gene will be overridden. Your child will be healthy. As long as the rent is paid, your child will no doubt live a long and prosperous life. My parents agreed, I had the injection and now I am grown.

Over the years, journalists would sometimes come to interview me, to find out how the boy with the patented gene inside him was getting on. Very well, I would tell them. But what is it like to live with the burden of renting a gene that keeps you alive? You don’t own it – do you not fear that one day it could be taken away?

It is no burden, I would answer. I have never known anything different and I am healthy. In fact, I never really think about it – it is like paying a mobile phone bill – it is deducted automatically from my bank account and it costs so little relatively speaking that I hardly notice it. Surely, this is a price worth paying for being alive?

One day, I received a letter from the corporation that owned my patented gene telling me that they were selling the patent to another corporation. This is completely legal and nothing to worry about, the letter explained. It happens every day. Corporations buy and sell their intellectual property all the time. There would be no change to my rental agreement and my customer number would remain the same. All I needed to do was to sign a form to say I acknowledged the change of company name and send it back to them. The small, monthly fee I paid would remain unchanged and the new corporation would continue to deduct it from my account each month.

Soon after I received this letter from the corporation, I received another letter. This one was from an organisation that said its purpose was to fight against corporations that destroy the earth. They told me that the corporation my patented gene belonged to was an evil corporation. It murdered people, they said, in order to create and test their products. It forced yet others to work in unsanitary conditions for inadequate wages and it polluted the environment. Blood was being spilled and people like me were bankrolling it.

I considered the contents of this second letter carefully. I did some research on the internet and found that the corporation that had bought my patented gene was indeed guilty of very bad deeds. Everyone knew it, so it seemed. Many articles had been written by journalists from all over the world outlining how the corrective genes were made and what effects this had on people less fortunate than myself. In fact, the corporation had been linked, it seemed, to just about every ill imaginable, from the plight of the poverty-stricken labourers in far off lands who had agreed to have tests done on them in return for cash whose children had suffered birth defects as a result to the rivers clogged with toxic waste caused by runoff from the production process. As I too was born with a type of birth defect, I felt particularly bad for those poor children, but it seemed incredible that one corporation could be responsible for all this, especially one that had saved my life. I put the letter in my bedroom drawer and tried not to think about it. Several weeks passed, but the letter lingered in my mind.

One day, I was at the local shopping centre on my way to the supermarket when I passed a small group of people wearing colourful T-shirts. They had set up a small table and were handing out leaflets and stopping people so that they could tell them about why the corporation that owned my patented gene should be boycotted. I noticed it was the same organisation that had sent me the letter I still had in my bedroom drawer. One woman in a colourful T-shirt caught my eye as I passed. She seemed to recognise me. Hey, she called out, aren’t you the boy with the patented gene? I’ve seen you in the paper. I tried to walk past her. I didn’t want to engage but she followed me wild-eyed to the threshold of the supermarket.

I simply came to do my grocery shopping, I told her. I haven’t time to talk. I just need to pick up a few things and get on my way. Do you know the corporation you pay rent to each month is killing people? She asked. I said that I had been made aware of this but I didn’t know what I could do about it. For without the patented gene, I would die. In any case, I needed to get my shopping done and I imagined that many of the corporations that produced many of the everyday foodstuffs I, and the other shoppers, were about to buy, were also responsible for doing bad things.

All corporations are bad to some extent, the woman agreed, her eyes holding me in a deadlock. But the corporation that owns your gene is the worst. It is the most evil corporation in the world. Besides, everyone needs to eat and cannot be blamed for buying food. Yet you have chosen to have a gene living within you that is unnatural, unlike the instinct to take food and water. And this gene is directly responsible for the suffering of many other people. You are a rich, white man whose parents had the choice to buy your life for you. Those who die at the hands of the corporation you support have no such choice. How is your life more valuable than theirs?

I was frightened by the ferocity in her eyes. Yet her anger and conviction impressed me enormously. Just think about it she said then walked away, back to her table where within seconds she was bellowing again. I did not stop shaking as I toured the supermarket, leaving with far fewer items than I had intended to buy. Indeed, I did not stop shaking until I got home and steadied myself with a stiff drink. I thought about the patented gene living inside me. I couldn’t see it or feel it, but it somehow seemed so foreign after what the woman had said, almost like a disease, a parasite. I tried to push this thought out of my mind and forget about the woman from the shopping mall.

Over the weeks that followed, though, I could not stop thinking her and about the letter in my drawer. I read the letter many times more, turning its contents over and over in my mind. I knew I needed to find out more and so I sought out the lady from the shopping mall again. I approached her while she was handing out flyers and told her I wanted to talk more about the corporation that owned my patented gene and what I should do about it. We left the group of people in brightly coloured T shirts to have a drink in a small café. She told me stories about the suffering of people in Africa and Asia and Latin America, about babies who’d died from contaminated drinking water, about mothers who died in industrial accidents in factories which supplied the corporation. I felt sick. I blamed my patented gene.

As we said goodbye, the lady from the shopping mall invited me to one of her organisation’s meetings and, some days later, I attended. While I was there I introduced myself and explained that I was the boy with the patented gene. Everybody commended my bravery for being there. I felt proud. I felt like I was taking a stand against all the things the corporation that owned my patented gene stood for.

After many meetings with the lady from the shopping mall and her organisation, we determined that there was only one thing for me to do. I would have to stop renting my patented gene. I would have to protest against the corporation in order to stop the savagery it was wreaking on the earth. I would become an example to others of how to stand up against all that is wrong in the world.

We went to the media to make the announcement. It received a lot of publicity. Journalists clamoured for interviews and the lady from the shopping mall managed the media process for me. My parents were very upset when I told them of my plans. My father tried to persuade me against my decision. He told me that the people I had fallen in with from the organisation did not have my best interests at heart. But I would always calmly tell him that my decision had not been taken lightly. I would talk to him about the corporation that owned the gene that kept me alive and what they were doing. I told him that my white, middle-class life was no more valuable that any other life and that I had no right to be alive at the expense of others. Then my father would sit quietly for a few moments considering this. Perhaps he felt guilty that he had made the choice for me as a baby – was he, in fact, the perpetrator? My mother would weep silently at his side.

After not paying my rent to the corporation for four months and having received warning letters form them that my gene would be deactivated unless I paid promptly, the company that owned my patented gene finally invited me to a consultation. I brought the lady from the shopping mall with me. I told them I wanted to have my gene deactivated. Would I need surgery? I asked. The lady from the shopping mall’s eyes grew large – that would cause a media fanfare, it would bring more attention to our cause. No, the corporation told me. All I would need was another injection to switch off the gene that was keeping me alive. I simply had to sign a consent form. The lady from the supermarket’s eyes were now so large she looked like an owl ready to scoop up its prey.

The lady from the corporation asked me if I was sure this was what I wanted as she handed me a pen. She said that if the monthly payments were becoming a problem, perhaps we could look at reducing them, given how long I had been a customer. I considered how the woman from the corporation was kinder than I imagined she would be. Then I signed the consent form and they gave me the injection which deactivated my patented gene.

For a while, the media made a fuss. Various media outlets came to interview me and all asked me if the corporation had made me any offers and if I was willing to reconsider. They asked me how I could be so unwavering in my conviction to no longer support the evil corporation that had provided me with the patented gene given it would most likely result in my death. I assured them that my conviction would not falter. After a while, the media lost interest.

As I got progressively sicker, I noticed that the lady from the shopping mall did not come around much anymore. The corporation occasionally sent me marketing material, offering various possible solutions to my problem. Since I was a baby, though, prices had gone up. Things were no longer as affordable as they used to be. It was no longer the cost of a monthly mobile phone bill to pay for a corrective gene, but the cost of a house, or two. My parents said they could remortgage, that perhaps we could consider the solutions, if it weren’t too late.

But I told them I didn’t want to. I had made my decision and I would stick with it. What right did I have to access this treatment when not only people in other countries couldn’t afford it, but even most people in my own country could no longer afford it either? My convictions were still strong, even though my friends from the shopping mall no longer stopped by at all.

Now, as my mother hand feeds me name brand soup and tucks me up in the new bed sheets she has bought from a producer that uses only sustainable cotton we watch news items about sweatshops in Central America. It claims that even fair trade farmers often do not earn a living wage in the way the corporations would like us to believe. And I think again about the patented gene, the one that no longer lives inside me like an incubating virus, the one without which I will soon die.

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