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Patenting Genes – Some Perspectives

In 1995, the Human Genome Organization (HUGO) issued a statement opposing the patenting of cDNAs because it would impede the free flow of scientific information. “HUGO is worried that the patenting of partial and uncharacterized cDNA sequences will reward those who make routine discoveries, but penalize those who determine biological function or application. Such an outcome would impede the development of diagnostics and therapeutics, which is clearly not in the public interest. HUGO is also dedicated to the early release of genome information, thus accelerating widespread investigation of functional aspects of genes.”Edward O. Wilson, Sociobiology: The New Synthesis (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1975) 4, and On Human Nature (New York: Bantam, 1978) 175 respectively.Patenting of life forms became a religious issue on May 18, 1995, at a Washington Press Conference, called the “Joint Appeal Against Human and Animal Patenting,” in which it was announced that religious leaders representing more than 80 different groups had signed a statement opposing patenting. This event marks a point of public meeting between the religious and scientific communities, a meeting that, quite unfortunately, has the appearance of a battle. Numerous Roman Catholic bishops, along with Jewish, Protestant, Islamic, Hindu, and Buddhist leaders, signed the following statement:

We, the undersigned religious leaders, oppose the patenting of human and animal life forms. We are disturbed by the U.S. Patent Office’s recent decision to patent human body parts and several genetically engineered animals. We believe that humans and animals are creations of God, not humans, and as such should not be patented as human inventions.Dorothy Nelkin and Laurence Tancredi, Dangerous Diagnostics: The Social Power of Biological Information (New York: Harper Collins, Basic Books, 1989) 12.

According to Jeremy Rifkin, whose Foundation on Economic Trends orchestrated the event, “By turning life into patented inventions, the government drains life of its intrinsic nature and sacred value.” Richard Land, Executive Director of the Christian Life Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, was quoted as saying in papers across the country, “Marketing human life is a form of genetic slavery. Instead of whole persons being marched in shackles to the market block, human cellines and gene sequences are labeled, patented and sold to the highest bidders.” Land added a judgment against playing God in the laboratory: “We see altering life forms, creating new life forms, as a revolt against the sovereignty of God and an attempt to be God.”Charles Murray and Richard Herrnstein, The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life (New York: Free Press, 1994).

The theology of the May 18 press conference reflects the point of view of Jeremy Rifkin, famed for his outspoken resistance to progress in biological research and medical technology. In his book, Algeny, Rifkin describes his own mission as a “resacralization of nature.”Troy Duster, "Genetics, Race, and Crime: Recurring Seduction to a False Precision," DNA on Trial: Genetic Information and Criminal Justice (Plainview, N.Y.: Cold Spring Harbor Press, 1992) 132....The Rifkin position implies that nature prior to human creative intervention is sacred and should be left alone. This position, however, could prevent the pursuit of medical research and development of therapies that could relieve human suffering and improve the health of the human race.

Maybe we should be asking how patents can help or retard the development of genetically based therapy for cancer, heart disease, Cystic Fibrosis, Alzheimer’s, Huntington’s disease, Williams syndrome, and countless others. In effect, the religious leaders have unnecessarily cut themselves off from making a contribution to this central concern.

Email link | Printer-friendly | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Ted Peters

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