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Starry Decisis: Our Bodies, Our Cells

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As anyone who’s seen Doc Hollywood knows, Los Angeles has a fairly secure footing in the medical community, or at least the cosmetical medical community. The city is also home to one of the world’s premiere research hospitals, the UCLA Medical Center, which recently benefited from a $200 million donation by David Geffen. Last year, the hospital suffered a PR blow when one of the workers in its morgue was arrested for selling body parts from corpses. It won’t be the first time UCLA was dragged into the choppy waters where law, medicine and morality converge.

In the case Moore v. UC Regents, the California Supreme Court decided that patients don’t have a property right in their body parts once they’ve been removed. This means that the doctors can do whatever they want with the lumps, warts, and discolored moles they prune from our bodies, provided they tell you about it first. Moore, for his part, had a condition called hairy-cell leukemia. He went to UCLA Medical Center for testing between 1976 and 1983, which involved biopsies aplenty, as well as a splendectomy. Moore flew to UCLA all the way from Seattle, believing the checkups to be necessary. Meanwhile, his physicians were creating valuable cell lines and “blood products” for distribution in the scientific research community.

Cell lines are a lucrative proposition for doctors, who can sell them to biotech companies who later develop patents related to the genetic material they contain. The UCLA doctors in this case did just that. Moore sued, claiming that the doctors had breached their contract, breached their fiduciary duties and were liable for conversion – a fancy word for stealing.

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Conversion has two components. (1) You had something and (2) Someone else now claims that something as his own. Proposition (1) is what gave the court trouble. Do harvested cells still belong, in some sense, to the home-body? Both the majority and the dissent offered impassioned arguments. Both sides agreed the doctors had done something wrong. They had violated their duties as paid physicians, but Moore and the dissent argued they violated his dignity as well.