Orphan Black and the Paradox of Self-Ownership

Time now for some more overthinking, this time about one of our favorite new series. And, frankly, we think this article “thinks” exactly as much as it should.

Love it when somebody gives a provocative work like ORPHAN BLACK its due!

orphan-black-banner-590x331by John Perich

While BBC America’s Orphan Black struggles with the occasional stock TV plot or cheesy line of dialogue, it deserves your Overthought attention for the originality of its premise and the boldness of its execution. Tatiana Maslany plays (among others) Sarah Manning, a streetwise hustler who starts a new life when she sees a woman who looks just like her jump in front of a train. In taking the decedent’s life, she uncovers a network of women her age who look exactly like her – clones, separated at birth and raised around the world, who are now being stalked by unknown threats. Sarah’s allies are her surviving clone sisters: hyper-anxious soccer mom Allison and science geek Cosima. Her enemies are legion: an order of religious zealots; biological visionary Dr. Aldous Leekie; and the mysterious Dyad Corporation.

It’s in the season finale, though, that the stakes really ramp up. Cosima decodes a sequence of “junk” DNA in Sarah’s blood sample and learns that the clones are all patented. If Sarah (or any of the clones) sign the contract that Dr. Leekie and Dyad proffer to them, they’ll be signing over their own lives as property. Sarah learns this moments before signing and flees with her sexy monitor Paul, but Allison signs hers without knowing.

In the real world, genetic patents are still a controversial subject. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in June (while the show was still airing) that genes can’t actually be patented. On the one hand, we are justly scared at the prospect of corporations patenting pieces of our genome, owning our tissue without us ever having entered into contract with them. This ownership would grant them the right to withhold necessary life-saving treatment, a fate which Cosima contemplates in the finale and which the plaintiffs in Association for Molecular Pathology vs. Myriad Genetics, Inc. sued to overturn. On the other hand, the research and technology required to unlock the human genome requires hundreds of millions of dollars. Most corporations are unwilling to advance that far without something to guarantee them a profit, such as a patent.

But aside from the thorny legal and economic issues, there’s something terrifying about the prospect of someone else owning you. We’re not used to thinking of our genes as our “selves,” the way that we think of our bodies or thoughts, but it takes no more than a high school education and an eye on the news to know how much our genes have to do with our lives. The clones are not literal slaves of Dyad, but Cosima’s worsening condition suggests that their lives are in Dyad’s hands. When someone has a gun to your head, or medicine in their hands, they may as well own you regardless of what the law says. The idea that the law might actually protect this sort of extortion challenges our notions of self-ownership.

But what exactly does “self-ownership” mean?

Step back a moment and untangle the concept with fresh eyes. In the exchange described by “self-ownership,” who is doing the owning and what is being owned? We might say that the “mind” owns the “body,” but this implies a mind/body dichotomy that’s neither philosophically useful nor scientifically accurate in this century. The division between mind and body grows fainter and less obvious with every new discovery; the idea that one “owns” the other should be equally antiquated.

Even with the mind/body dichotomy aside, the notion of a person as something whose ownership needs to be established – like an unfenced piece of land, or a car in probate, or a found wallet – should skeeve us out a bit. If I own my self, can I sell my self? If I sell my self to somebody, do they have absolute right to use and dispose of me as they like? And if so, how do they exercise that right except by my going along with it – thereby implying that I’m still in command, still ultimately the owner?

Read it all