The backlash against gene patenting is heating up, and not a moment too soon. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has already granted more than 1,000 patents on human genes or their fragments, with over 20,000 pending. The patent office plans to issue new guidelines by the end of the year: Researchers will now have to indicate a gene's function--its "specific and substantial credible utility"--and its chemical code to get a patent.
The vision of broadly shared wealth is a long-standing American theme, dating back to the yeomen farmers of colonial times. America, uniquely, was a land of freeholders. Its egalitarian distribution of property undergirded its nascent political democracy. Thomas Jefferson explicitly put public policy on the side of broadly distributed property wealth when he decided that the public lands in the territories should be conveyed not to absentee real estate companies but to settlers who would work the land. The freeholding tradition was continued into the nineteenth century with the Homestead Act, the establishment of land-grant colleges, and the freedmen's demand for 40 acres and a mule.
Over the next few weeks, America will be consumed by debate about how life in this beacon of freedom may have to change to confront the terrorist threat. Liberals will have to think creatively about how to protect civil liberties in an era when it has become apparent that there are cells of people within the U.S. who are willing to engage in indiscriminate mass murder to further their insane politics.