Mirror of Justice

A blog dedicated to the development of Catholic legal theory.

Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Trump and the Idolatry of Safety

Yesterday Christian leaders gathered in New York at Donald Trump's behest. Aside from bizarre elements (e.g., Trump wondering whether he could bring us back to the day when attending Sunday School was "automatic"), the attraction of many Christian leaders and laity to Trump based on their understandable longing for safety in a dangerous world, particularly when the price of that safety is the abandonment of certain Christian values and principles, stands as a stark reminder that golden calves come in many forms. 

Shortly after the Orlando massacre, I noted that Trump retweeted someone's undoubtedly heartfelt message imploring the candidate to "please make us safe."  This simple retweet, to me, captures one (of many) disturbing element(s) of Trump's candidacy.  He is inhabiting the biblical role of Aaron, playing on the people's fears and anxieties and offering a golden calf for their worship -- in this case, the idol is our own safety.

Though the dangers take new forms, we have lived in a dangerous world since the Fall.  Political candidates can and should offer new ideas to address those dangers, but unrealistic promises that safety is achievable should be met with skepticism.  A candidate's promise of safety rises to the idolatrous level, in my view, when the prescribed means of guaranteeing safety require us to reject the God-inspired lens through which we are called to view the world.  Trump's statements and policy proposals regarding Muslims and Mexican immigrants, for example, are in significant tension with the Gospel's demand for solidarity and recognition of human dignity. 

I do not mean to suggest that debates about stricter immigration policies or the consideration of religion's role in terrorism are categorically beyond the pale.  The more obvious problem comes from stigmatizing groups -- as Trump frequently does -- instead of engaging ideas -- as Trump appears to avoid whenever possible.

On this front, John Inazu's important book, "Confident Pluralism," is instructive, especially chapter six.  Building on insights from Erving Goffman and Lee Bollinger, John explains why confident pluralism "rejects stigmatizing others through our speech," but does require us "to distinguish between stigmatizing and causing offense."

Trump suggests that safety is achievable if we reject "political correctness" and demonstrate the courage to do what needs to be done to root out the dangerous "others" in our midst.  It is an illusory promise of safety through a quite real imposition of stigma, and we should reject both the means and the ends.  God calls us to faithfulness, not to safety.

June 22, 2016 in Vischer, Rob | Permalink

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Conscience claims by government officials

For those who have not grown weary of the debate over Kim Davis, I have an op-ed on the topic in today's Minneapolis Star Tribune.  I consider myself a strong supporter of the liberty of conscience, but I am troubled by her actions. Here's an excerpt:

I believe that our debates over conscience should focus on whether accommodating the claim of conscience would jeopardize access to a good or a service deemed essential (by the state) for full participation in society. Because of the importance of religious liberty and the unavoidable messiness of living in a world of moral conflict, I have objected when the state’s disregard of a provider’s claim of conscience appears to be animated by a desire to avoid potential affronts to a customer’s sense of dignity — for example, when the state penalizes a photo agency for refusing on religious grounds to shoot a same-sex wedding even though many other competent photographers are available. While I object to dignity-driven state prohibitions in the market for goods and services, an employer could legitimately decide that an employee’s conscience-driven refusal of service sends a message inconsistent with the moral claims embedded in the employer’s marketplace identity.

By the same token, the government should have some discretion to decide that its public officials must execute the full scope of the law and serve all members of the public legally entitled to a good or service. If the state of Kentucky wants to create an accommodation for Davis that still maintains full access to marriage for same-sex couples, I wouldn’t object. The problem is empowering Davis to decide on her own whether her denial of access is consistent with the public norms that the state wants to champion. If we value a vibrant moral marketplace, institutional actors, not just individual employees, must have a degree of discretion to shape their identities and messages within the marketplace. The government should have similar discretion.

September 16, 2015 in Vischer, Rob | Permalink

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Reflections on a shared mission

Last week St. Thomas Law School's Murphy Institute co-hosted a conference with the Von Hugel Institute at St. Edmund's College of Cambridge University.  At the conference dinner, I offered brief remarks on why such partnerships are so important:

My colleagues and I are grateful for the hospitality you’ve shown us, and for the time and effort you’ve invested in helping us organize this conference on the religious and moral dimensions of questions regarding the patentability of life products and processes. It is not often I feel almost apologetic explaining that we represent a 130-year old university, but by Cambridge standards, I feel obliged to reassure you that we are really here for the long haul and are not just a flash in the pan. This collaboration between our institutions is well-suited to the test of time for reasons that warrant at least a few moments of reflection.


The University of St. Thomas School of Law has a mission statement that dedicates us to “the integration of faith and reason in the search for truth through a focus on morality and social justice.”  One of the many ways we try to live out that mission is through the work of the Terrence J. Murphy Institute for Catholic Thought, Law, and Public Policy.  The Murphy Institute’s work, in turn, is greatly enhanced through institutional partnerships, such as the one we are building with the Von Hugel Institute here at St. Edmund’s College at Cambridge University.  As a preface for my toast, I’d like to articulate three reasons why this partnership is so crucial to our work.


First, this partnership will produce a broader and richer conversation. As a gathered assembly of law professors, theologians, philosophers, practicing attorneys, and policy advocates, I hope we can agree that conversations matter; the conversation has intrinsic value that is not contingent on any particular outcome or lack thereof.  Both the Murphy and Von Hugel Institutes are committed to bringing insights from the Catholic intellectual tradition into some of our most pressing legal and policy conversations – conversations where, too often, such insights are raised only on the margins, if acknowledged at all.  By partnering, we can widen the circle of participation, expand our platform, and reach new venues.


Second, this partnership will produce insights of greater scholarly depth and real-world impact.  The concepts we explore – human dignity, the preferential option for the poor, the universal destination of goods, solidarity, and subsidiarity, among many others – can fruitfully be engaged by individual scholars on their own initiative.  But these concepts are sufficiently important to warrant sustained and serious engagement over generations of scholars – a quality of engagement that can best be facilitated by institutions.  By partnering, we can leverage our distinctive strengths, pool resources, and tap into new circles of expertise and influence.


Third, this partnership can be a source of mutual encouragement, support and even accountability as we work to stay faithful to our missions.  Higher education is not immune from the general pressure in our society to produce measurable outcomes in the most efficient way possible.  There’s nothing inherently wrong with assessment or efficiency, but we need to be careful that this narrowing focus does not allow technical questions of “how” to obscure deeper questions of “why.”  As we’ve already seen at this conference, our mission is the impetus for big questions.  What does it mean for law if all creation is a gift?  What is the nature of the human person, and why should the political community care?  Is human dignity an infinitely malleable concept, or does it have an unshakeable core that can shed light on our most intractable conflicts and confusions?  These are just a few of the questions that may fall out of favor within the surrounding academic and policy-making circles, but that we must continue to revisit if we are faithful to our founding visions.


Human beings have an infinite capacity to empower our insecurities to distract ourselves from the pursuit of truth.  For academics, the recurring temptation is to chase prestige.  We pursue cleverness for the sake of appearing clever. We strive to be the first to proclaim an idea, not because the idea is worth proclaiming, but because novelty can too often be invoked as a proxy for insight.  Our mission is too important to let this happen.  And so, if you raise your glasses with me, I’d like to toast the new partnership between the Murphy and Von Hugel Institutes; my hope is that the partnership will extend over many years and be marked by a collaborative, thoughtful, and bold stewardship of questions that may otherwise recede from view.

September 8, 2015 in Vischer, Rob | Permalink

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Patents on Life: the future of life-patenting

As the conference draws to a close, there was a roundtable discussion looking to the future of life-patenting:

Martin Gouldstone, Head of Lifesciences Advisory for BDO, reflected on industry concerns over gene patenting. Government funding of medical research has declined in many countries, and regulatory obstacles to approval have increased (for understandable reasons).  Estimates of the average cost of bringing a drug to market range from $800M to $1.4B and chances of any particular drug making it to market are very small. Industry is under enormous pressure to replace lost revenue as some big-revenue drugs are going off patent. Companies are beginning to pool resources on research and development and are doing swap deals where companies trade inventories to leverage strengths. Genomics revolution is also driving innovation, and it's just beginning. Challenge is keeping up with speed of technological advances. There is also real danger with the innovation --presented with a future in which 3D printing permits individuals to download and create the bubonic plague, for example, the need for strong regulation is obvious.

Dr. Thana Campos, Van Hugel Institute Research Associate, discussed the phenomenon of universities securing patents for the fruit of its research. She explored the tension between the university mission of disseminating/extending knowledge and the premises of the patent regime.  University patents boost university revenue, facilitate more transfer of technology from universities to business partners, and support further innovation and economic development. However, knowledge sharing and spillover are key paths of intellectual development in a university; this is hindered by patents. 

Dr. Calum MacKellar, Director of Research at the Scottish Council on Human Bioethics, served as facilitator, and he prompted discussion by asking whether Dr. Frankenstein should have been permitted to patent his creation.  Paul Heald pointed out that a patent doesn't give him the right to make the monster or let the monster run amok; it only empowers Dr. Frankenstein to prevent others from making his monster. The problem is not patentability.

A former patent judge asked why churches don't participate in the patent process itself, raising moral concerns as part of the process.  A bioethicist speculated that the issues are sufficiently murky morally and technically complicated that churches don't feel comfortable jumping into the process in any particular case.  A bishop in the audience observed that, at least in the U.K., people will listen to lay experts more than they will listen to bishops.  Another representative of the Church pointed out that the Church is heavily engaged at the level of principle, and he was met with a response that engagement at that level is not sufficient.

Bishop John Sherrington recognized the need for the Church to translate its usual concepts (e.g., common good) into terms that resonate more broadly in these debates. He also reminded participants of Pope Francis's admonition to recognize the real persons before us as the starting point in addressing social issues.

The conversation was robust and relevant. As MoJ's Tom Berg observed in his closing remarks, the Church's rich history of reflection on the meaning of property and economic life, its interest in rigorous and empirical argument, and its global dimension make the Church an essential partner in these conversations. 

September 5, 2015 in Vischer, Rob | Permalink

Patents on Life: the patent system, human rights, and politics

The Patents on Life conference continues:

Ingrid Schneider, professor of political science at the University of Hamburg, discussed patent governance, ethics and democracy.  She sees a legitimacy crisis because of an overexpansion in terms of size and an overreaching of traditional boundaries of patent protection.  The patent system is governed by insiders -- a specialized epistemic community with too little responsiveness to the political process and civil society.  Blurred boundaries: 1) boundary between discovery and invention (i.e., reflecting a judgment that technology should be accessible to all); and 2) the ordre public and public policy clause (i.e., reflecting a judgment that no one should have access to the technology in question).  The ordre public exclusion is designed to function as an ex ante control of the social desirability of an invention. There is a concern that the patent community (applicants, attorneys, examiners, specialist judges) exerts more influence on patent law than the legislature does. Do patent offices view applicants as customers, and if so, what does that mean for the public policies underlying our patent system? She explored the patentability of human embryonic research techniques as an example of these dynamics.

Stephen Colecchi, director of the Office of International Justice and Peace at the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, spoke about lessons from Catholic social teaching pertaining to life patents. What is the impact of life patents on persons who live at the margins? The Church has expressed concern that technological development has not been accompanied by development of human responsibility.  He discussed resources that the American bishops bring to the debate: 1) Catholic social teaching; 2) relationships with the Church in the developing world; 3) experience on the ground working to address challenges in the developing world.  He identified four principles to guide the debate: 1) respect for rights of indigenous people; 2) careful balance of property rights and social welfare; 3) concern that commercial interests are favored over common good; and 4) need for transparency. Nevertheless, multinational corporations exert much more influence on IP than Church or other civil society organizations do. It will be critical that the Church continues to engage in a manner that compensates for the power imbalance between richer and poorer nations, and between civil society and the corporate sphere.

Justin Turner, barrister and former member of the Gene Therapy Advisory Committee, discussed the treatment of embryonic stem cells before the European Patent Office. To draw a conclusion about the morality of a patent claim, an examiner must draw on the constitutional traditions of the country as well as international treaties. One must take a broad view. Is terminating an embryo generally contrary to morality?  No -- there is no unitary principle that terminating embryonic life is immoral; we have the morning-after pill, embryos are necessarily terminated in the course of IVF, etc. Embryos do not have a right to life for purposes of patent law's morality exemption. Patent claims have been rejected but tribunals have not directly answered question of whether it is contrary to morality. He believes that religious politics are playing an important role in the patent system's treatment of the issue; his concern is that the religious objections are not vented properly in the decisions.  The legal tribunals should squarely address whether these patents would be contrary to morality.

September 5, 2015 in Vischer, Rob | Permalink

Patents on Life: shortcomings and ideas for improvement

More from the Patents on Life conference:

Dr. Julian Cockbain, a European patent lawyer and bioethics expert, compared European and American law on the patenting of human body materials. European patent law has taken a wrong turn by claiming that a discovery is not a discovery as such if it has a "technical effect" when in use -- e.g., a gene producing a protein, adrenaline producing an effect on the heart.  Also, elements isolated from the human body are patent-eligible even if they are identical to elements occurring naturally in the human body. This renders the exclusion of discoveries toothless.  American courts have been much more reasonable on this front.  Dr. Cockbain sees a potential way out for European courts because Article 52 of the EPC requires an inventive step, and discoveries do not entail an inventive step.

Dr. Katerina Sideri, an IP advisor at the Agricultural University of Athens, discussed germ line interventions as an example of patents and the moral limits of markets. Patent law's morality exclusion should address not just access and delivery, but problem of commodification.  Our understanding of morality must go beyond individual rights and autonomy. Can we find alternative ways to incentivize the development of technology? Especially in biotech, patent offices should be science/technology offices that link to broader political processes.

September 5, 2015 in Vischer, Rob | Permalink

Patents on Life: a view from the European Patent Office

Day 2 of the Patents on Life conference has begun.

Christopher Rennie-Smith, former chair of the Biotech Board of Appeal and former member of the Board of Appeal at the European Patent Office, spoke on life-form patents before the European Patent Office. There is no overall provision re patenting life forms in the European Patent Convention (EPC), and general exclusions do not include any life form, so life forms that are novel, inventive and industrially applicable are patentable. Article 53 excludes when contrary to "ordre public" or morality; and excludes plant or animal varieties or essentially biological processes for the production of plants or animals. "Morality" has been defined in case law as the belief that some behavior is right and other behavior is wrong founded on the totality of accepted norms rooted in the culture inherent in European society.  There is no definition of "animal variety" or "essentially biological process."  He discussed the case of the Harvard oncomouse, which presented the question whether Article 53 would function as a bar given the suffering of the genetically manipulated animals and possible risks to the environment posed by the release of manipulated animals. In the end, claims limited to a transgenic mouse (but not a transgenic rodent) succeeded. The method of producing the transgenic mouse was deemed not "an essentially biological process."

September 5, 2015 in Vischer, Rob | Permalink

Friday, September 4, 2015

Patents on Life: Okediji on International Regulation of Access to Genetic Resources

University of Minnesota law professor Ruth Okediji presented on the protection of genetic resources and its Judeo-Christian justifications: dominion, stewardship, and reward.  Other theories of IP have strengths but also shortcomings: utilitarianism (tends to ignore obligation to steward creative gifts), natural law/continental approaches (tend to ignore the source of creativity), user rights (tend to ignore accountability), and human rights (tend to marginalize command to exercise dominion and can de-value moral basis of reward). She believes that patent system is consistent with biblical precepts, but patent system is not a God-given institution; patents are a tool.  Sovereign countries have the mandate and obligation to regulate, use, and steward natural resources.

An international legal framework to regulate access to and use of genetic resources is morally and ethically required.  Historically, genetic resources were not patentable because they didn't involve human ingenuity and owe their source to no human.  (But isn't this true of all innovation? At what level of abstraction do we draw the line between what is of man and what is of God?)  The phenomenon of biopiracy -- i.e., patenting inventions derived from genetic resources and/or traditional knowledge without compensation to the country that is home to those resources/knowledge -- is creating additional pressure to protect these resources.  We don't yet have answers given the multiplicity of stakeholders and interests.  Given the stalemate on the international front, we may need to consider relying more on national law and encourage less developed countries to invest more in IP systems and institutions. We may need to reconsider the role of international institutions as the appropriate fora for the debate.

September 4, 2015 in Vischer, Rob | Permalink

More from Patents on Life conference

University of Virginia law professor Margo Bagley presented biblical insights on misappropriation in life science patenting.  She discussed the passage from Leviticus that instructs landowners not to reap to the edges of the field, leaving some food for the poor.  Any lessons for our law today? Our legal prohibition on "stealing" self-replicating inventions (e.g. landowners sued by patent-holder after neighbor's GMO plant seeds drift onto their land) can seem unjust because there is no de minimis exception.  Stealing pharmaceutical products is also thorny -- Thailand exercised TRIPs rights and issued compulsory licenses on several drugs.  Abbot responded that Thailand would not receive new drugs. Many countries didn't grant pharmaceutical products until relatively recently. Margo offered data on pharmaceutical companies' expenditures on research/development and sales/marketing --the latter being higher -- and profit margins (higher than other major industries).  Question today is: who's stealing from whom?

Michael Kock, Global Head of IP at Syngenta, discussed the ethical use of patents in plant innovations. He noted that the world must produce more food in the next fifty years than it has in the last 10,000 years. Every second, the world loses on football field of farmland due to urbanization and erosion. Climate change is also affecting agricultural production in some regions. He pointed out that carrots are orange only because breeders created an orange carrot in the nineteenth century. Other than some mushrooms and berries, all crops have been changed by humans -- none are "natural." So how much genetic interference is acceptable? Plant variety protection through conventional breeding is generally accepted but plant variety protection does not protect specific attribute, just entire plant variety.  We have an increasing need for innovation and increasing need for investment given technical complexity compared to traditional breeding. Can we minimize the problematic effects of a patent on life without losing the benefits? New international licensing platform shows promise -- "free access but not access for free."  The platform is based on fair pricing, MFN principle, transparency, "pull-in effect" (if you want access, you have to grant access to your inventions). Voluntary efforts such as the licensing platform, though, may not be sufficient.

University of Illinois law professor Paul Heald presented a sociological history of religious objections to patenting life, asking: why is there no significant religious objection to patenting life in the U.S.?  One major reason is the rise of Christian libertarianism and Christian materialism. Business interests succeeded in convincing Americans that business interests and Christian interests overlap. Because patent rights are property rights, criticizing patent rights is akin to criticizing property rights.  There have been a few statements made, but they failed to gain traction.  There are high information costs in developing an educated position, and this is a relatively low-priority issue for American Christians compared to abortion, the death penalty, etc. Even within the world of corporate agricultural practices, this may not be the most pressing issue; what's more of a problem: seed patents or the seed company's corruption of lending practices in developing countries (forcing local farmers to buy expensive patented seeds by persuading banks not to lend to farmers unless they use the advanced seed technology)? 


September 4, 2015 in Vischer, Rob | Permalink

Patents on Life: Morality-based exclusions under patent law

Dr. Kathleen Liddell, director of the Centre for Law, Medicine and Life Sciences at Cambridge University, addressed the exclusion of "immoral" inventions from patent law.  In addition to discussing potential levers for improving current law, she raised questions that must be resolved. When we're proposing morality-based exclusions, are we focusing on the morality of performing the technology itself (e.g. letter bombs), the morality of granting patent rights (e.g. life-saving drugs), the morality of patenting an invention based on unethical research (e.g. embryo-based technologies), or all three?  And is morality determined by a harm-benefit calculation, the fact that granting of the patent would be universally regarded as outrageous, or more modestly, that granting a patent would be contrary to a particular country's norms?

She asked theologians to develop a more nuanced understanding of IP law and realistic opportunities and constraints for ethical/religious touchstones within IP law, and she encouraged IP lawyers to develop a better understanding of epistemologies other than law.

September 4, 2015 in Vischer, Rob | Permalink