Legal: If a cure was found for a terminal illness...

Legally, would such founder have to give up that information? Would that person be forced into spilling the beans? (Ex. Aids, Cancer.) For now, let’s just stick with what the U.S. might do.

I understand that it would be stupid not to, considering how many lives would benefit and the amount of money tha would be lossed, but then again, this is a what if.

The inventor wouldn’t need to keep the cure secret. They’d patent the cure and make billions.

If I build a better mousetrap, I am under no legal obligation to disclose it. In fact (and this may depend on your state, but) in New York, a private citizen is not required to do anything to help save another’s life. Someone could lie dying right in front of me and I can, in all good legality, just step over his soon-to-be mortal remains and continue walking.

Ethically, however, I would feel obligated to do something.

Zev Steinhardt

Why would someone spend years of research developing a cure for a disease and then decide to keep it secret and not actually cure anyone?

Sorry…I lost my second paragraph.

I don’t understand why someone would do what the OP is talking about. But, I don’t think that it is illegal to keep a cure for a disease secret. I do think that it is immoral.

Sorry…I lost my second paragraph.

I don’t understand why someone would do what the OP is talking about. But, I don’t think that it is illegal to keep a cure for a disease secret. I do think that it is immoral.

In Conceivable It know this sounds inconceivable, I’m just wondering if someone did have a cure and decided to tease the world with it, could someone be forced to come out with it? I totally agree and so do 99.8% of the population that it’s immoral and wrong on many different levels.

Wow, I must have forgotten my grammer at home today.

Well, it sounds like we are talking about a crazy person then. A sane person would either sell/give away the cure.

If they can’t be pursaded by the money into selling the cure then I don’t know what legally could be done to them.

How could you force them? Do you want to put them in jail or use torture? If he is crazy then he might “forget” the cure.

If the person’s research was funded by the gov’t, then the gov’t could come in and take the cure and make it public. A private funder (like a drug company) would have the same right, but whether or not they do would be a bottom line question and if it’s some FDA-approval required thing, the gov’t may have some say in regulating its price (c.f. the Cipro situation in late 2001). The private funder wouldn’t have to disclose though.

The media would have a field day if they learned that someone discovered a cure for AIDS/cancer/whatever and refused to market it. Public pressure alone might force him to change his mind.

WAG as to why someone might not release a cure: It’s possible that drugs for certain diseases prevalent in very poor countries (say, malaria, for instance) might be considered by drug companies to be prohibitively expensive to send through animal and human testing trials, and then to produce.

This is a valid and interesting question, even if there weren’t any reason whatsoever for a person not to disclose a cure. Does society have the right to force the information from a person for the better good of society?

As far as reasons why someone wouldn’t market it (not that any are needed for this discussion), probably the best would be if the person/company who found the cure would lose money because they making a bundle selling treatments that a person with the disease buys their whole life to fend off the disease. If you make your living selling AZT, a one-shot AIDS cure will lose you money, unless that one-shot costs as much as a lifetime of buying AZT.

Or, the person who discovered it is just an asshole.

Or insane.

Crap. The server ate my reply. Anyway, I agree that the inventor has a legal right to keep such a cure under wraps. However, that is under the current state of U.S. law – were it the case that a bona fide cure (not merely maintenance medication) for cancer or AIDS or something similar were developed, I would not at all be surprised to see Congress rewrite the applicable law so as to force the disclosure and distribution of the cure. Such an effort would be a taking under the 5th Amendment and therefore require the pay ment of just compensation, but I see no Consitutional bar thereto as long as compensation were justly paid.


I agree with In Conceivable that the OP’s question does seem quite preposterous. That fact alone makes it hard to answer. Revtim’s amendment makes it more realistic. However, then we still have problems.

It is hard to imagine a person discovering a cure purely on his own. It is just as hard to imagine a company discovering a cure and not trying to patent it, if only because then someone else might discover the same thing (or even making the cure surreptituously public knowledge, thereby making it impossible to file a succesfull patent claim). Hence the company should have to file a patent. Thereby the cure becomes known. Still, the company may prohibit the making of the cure without their permission.

So the problem in a practical case is not that the cure is kept secret, but that the company must give its permission. This could mean the cure is rather expensive or that the company doesn’t give any permission (or doesn’t to people they don’t like or so). If the fee would be so high as to be in practice prohibitive for well-neigh everyone, or if the company wouldn’t give any licence, there exists the possibility for a forced licence. This is at least part of Dutch statute law; although I’m not sure of U.S. or other jurisdictions I would be surprised if this doesn’t exist elsewhere. Such a forced licence could be mandated for reasons of common interest (and I believe AIDS or so might be good reason; also technology fit for use in a war might be another reason) and would replace the need for permission with an obligation to pay a reasonable licence fee.

Thus it appears the OP’s question will not appear in a reasonably plausible case.

Now for the other side of the argument. A case bearing some similarity to the OP’s question has last year briefly made the news around here. It was about people suffering from Pompe’s disease (a hereditary, lethal muscle disorder). A medicin (which was not a cure but only stopped or delayed the progressing of the disease) was available, produced by milk from genetically engineered rabbits (I am not making this up, see links below). Last year the company who produced this, Pharming, wanted to stop the production of rabbit milk and switch to a completely different medicin. The patients and their families feared that this new medicin wouldn’t work as well. Their fear is understandable in that if the medicin wouldn’t work it would be curtains for them: they wanted a backup.

A friend of mine who is involved in the movement that opposes genetic manipulation filled me in on a bit of the background: at the time of the beginning of the rabbit experiment, Pharming said that the rabbits were the only way of producing a cure. This way they got their permission to go ahead. Now the so-called new cure that they wanted to push last year was the alternative cure at the time of the request for permission for the rabbit-experiment. At that time they said that the alternative cure wouldn’t work! My friend was quite pissed off about this course of affairs, and I can’t blame him. On the other hand, Pharming did make a much-needed medicine for those patients that did extend their lives. They’d have been worse off without them.

I believe that the outcome of last year’s dispute was as compromise (see next two links). You can see that the company did not leave the patients completely in the lurch. Still there may be some moral blame to their actions.

For those who are interested:
Information here and here. For more info do a Google on Pompe, rabbits and disease

I’m sorry if I have been taking too much of your attention. I’m currently working on a thesis that touches on these matters. Those who are interested might look up the so-called ‘Heinz dilemma’ that Kohlberg used in his research on moral development. It was heavily criticised for its unrealistic premises by Gilligan and the subsequent ethics of care. It runs as follows:

Colby, A. and Lawrence Kohlberg, (1987). The Measurement of Moral Judgment, vol. I (Cambridge University Press, Cambridge): 229-230.

See why my attention was immediately raised?

To end this longish mail: I tend to agree with your opinion’s (and I’d love to hear more of what others think) if we assume the premise of the OP. I wonder however what you’d think if we’d try to fill in more details.

What the hell? GQs have to be plausible now? There goes my question about space bees…


Well, yes, you didn’t notice the FAQ change?:slight_smile: No, I didn’t mean to say GQs must be plausible, only that implausible questions are harder to answer, especially if you want the legal answer, which mainly depends on the actual details of the case.

On the other hand, I’ll be happy to tackle your space bees question (Answer: Crazy Glue will patch up the holes in your space suit just fine).

Could the concept of eminent domain come into play here?

Is it a cure for terminal specialness?

I’ll pay for that.


Rereading my earlier post I must admit that it may be more than what the OP asked for. To stay in line with the earlier discussion, let me add the following remarks, that expand on what was said earlier.

As far as I’ve been given to understand U.S. law, there is indeed no general duty to help others to whom you are not in any legal relationship whatsoever (pure Samaritan duties). However (and insofar zev_steinhardt’s comment must be amended), I believe there are states that have Samaritan laws that oblige you to step in if you can help someone whose life is in peril if you can do so without any danger to yourself (this was the subject of the final Seinfeld episode, but I’ve heard it from more trustworthy sources as well). Furthermore, in most continental European jurisdictions such a general duty is part of criminal and/or civil law.

In such jurisdictions there might be an obligation to ‘spill the beans’, possibly with adequate compensation. It is quite clear that there cannot be a general rule for providing aid without compensation, otherwise almost any profession that provides services based on special knowledge would be unable to make a living out of it (thereby discouraging newcomers from entering that profession and killing off the special knowledge). But in particular dire circumstances some aid is necessary. There have been Dutch cases like that, such as the one, where one family member was ordered to hand over the diary of the deceased, to aid the mourning process of another family member.

This last case dovetails into the other source of an obligation to aid. The general duty of care does not exist for complete strangers, but may be available if there is some relationship between the parties. Whether the duty would oblige the inventor to provide the cure, again depends on the circumstances (such as the nature of the relationship).

If I try to stay within the bounds of the OP’s question, several possibilities come to mind.

  1. If the inventor has filed a patent, the earlier post applies. I should add that several large companies have in fact provided cheaper medicine to third world countries after international organisations put pressure on them. There might have been an economic incentive as well (evening out general costs on higher production), but it shows how this works in real life.

  2. The inventor has not filed a patent but kept the cure secret, except for saying “I’ve got a cure but I’m not telling, nya-nya-nya-nya-nya”.
    2.a. If the inventor (I assume it is an individual) has found the cure by investigating patients, you might put a good case saying that the cooperation of those patients constitutes a special relationship that obliges the inventor to at least provide them with the cure (with compensation). The duty of care might just carry this.
    2.b. If the inventor has found the cure purely by reading about the disease it would come down to pure Samaritan duties which are not generally accepted in U.S. law (see above). Hence you would not have a direct legal remedy.

For case 2.b. you might however try some additional routes. If the inventor has written down the cure and/or kept notes, it might be possible to devise a route to seize his papers. If he was working for a farmaceutical company (InTransit’s remark), the company might claim ownership of his notes, or at least start a discovery procedure to check whether his papers were not based on their intellectual property in other products. The latter still would not give them the right to use the cure. I do wonder, however, if the cure would in the course of these proceedings accidentaly ‘get out’, how the damages would be estimated, since the inventor apparently didn’t want to make money out of it. I guess he would against his will be given an appropriate license fee. (note: I am not recommending this: this would probably constitute a violation of trust that would have serious consequences for the people involved in the discovery procedure). (note 2: I am not very familiar with the specifics of discovery proceedings, so please correct me if I’m wrong).

If the inventor (‘mad scientist’ begins to seem a better term) has destroyed all his papers and memorized the cure, you’d be completely out of luck. In jurisdictions with Samaritan laws you might ask the court to order him on pain of penalties to ‘spill the beans’, but if he still proved unresponsive that would be the end of it. That you then may cash the penalties and possible getting him bankrupt is only a meagre satisfaction, I guess.

Is this more of an answer?