Deadly Contradictions: Patent Privilege vs. “Saving Lives”

In his 2013 State of the Union address, US President Barack Obama claims that the U.S. will help end extreme poverty “by saving the world’s children from preventable deaths, and by realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation, which is within our reach.” Sounds good, right? Unfortunately, the president directly contradicted these goals earlier in his speech by pushing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

The TPP is typically presented as a “free trade” agreement, but there’s one type of trade barrier it proposes to strengthen: “Intellectual property.” Patents and other forms of “intellectual property” restrict trade by granting monopolies on the sharing of an idea or the manufacture of a product. “Intellectual property” makes it illegal to use your own personal property to manufacture a product and sell it on the market once the state has defined the very idea of that product as someone else’s “property.”

“Intellectual property” harms consumers by raising prices. For some goods this is just an economic cost. But when it comes to medicine, the price increases associated with pharmaceutical patents cost lives. As Judit Rius Sanjuan of Doctors Without Borders says, “Policies that restrict competition thwart our ability to improve the lives of millions with affordable, lifesaving treatments.”  Or, as Center for a Stateless Society senior fellow Charles Johnson puts it, “Patents kill people.”

And not just a few people. Fire in the Blood, a documentary that premiered this year at the Sundance Film Festival, reveals how patents have killed millions. As Amy Goodman explains, “major pharmaceutical companies, including Pfizer and GlaxoSmithKline, as well as the United States, prevented tens of millions of people in the developing world from receiving affordable generic AIDS drugs. Millions died as a result.”

The Trans-Pacific Partnership would expand these already deadly patent monopolies, further restricting access to lifesaving medicines. Tido von Schoen-Angerer of Doctors Without Borders wrote in 2011 that “leaked papers reveal a number of U.S. objectives: to make it impossible to challenge a patent before it is granted; to lower the bar required to get a patent (so that even drugs that are merely new forms of existing medicines, and don’t show a therapeutic improvement, can be protected by monopolies); and to push for new forms of intellectual property enforcement that give customs officials excessive powers to impound generic medicines suspected of breaching IP.”  Each of these provisions would use government force to prevent poor people from accessing medicine.

It’s clear that entrenching patent monopolies contradicts Obama’s stated goals of “saving the world’s children from preventable deaths” and “realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation.” This contradiction between the TPP and the U.S. government’s stated commitment to public health has been apparent for a while. Back in 2011, Doctors Without Borders executive director Sophie DeLaunay said that the TPP would create “a fundamental contradiction between U.S. trade policy and U.S. commitments to global health.”

Contradictions like this are nothing new for the state. While politicians repeatedly promise to protect public health, they have long used coercive power to raise medical costs, sacrificing public health for private profits. The state has long  justified its power with the language of “the public good,” all while wielding that power to protect privilege.

If we really care about “saving the world’s children from preventable deaths” and “realizing the promise of an AIDS-free generation,” we must end this murderous collusion between state and corporate power. We must smash the state and its deadly contradictions.

Translations for this article:

Anarchy and Democracy
Fighting Fascism
Markets Not Capitalism
The Anatomy of Escape
Organization Theory