Biological Machines

  Ten years ago, Stuart Newman and Jeremy Rifkin invented a monster they called the "humouse." Using already existing techniques, Newman designed a mixture of human and mouse, a chimera that could be used by drug companies to test new drugs. Newman and Rifkin then applied for a patent. Mind you, they have no intention of ever making their monster. Instead they were making a point, one that is almost as scary as their creature: God may be the author of life, but it's possible for man to hold the patent. As Newman told the Los Angeles Times, their actions were prompted by the horror of "genetically engineered human beings made for sale." When it comes to patent law, Newman says, "there really is no boundary on what you can do with human life." So he filed for the patent in order to force people to face the moral issue and force the government to establish a moral boundary. And that boundary can't come too soon. According to Page Cunningham of the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity, we are on the way to patenting human beings. A patent issued to the University of Missouri for a process connected with animal cloning was "written so broadly that it appears to include human cloning and products of cloning in its protection." These "products" can include "embryos," "fetuses," and even "children" resulting from the patented process. Thus, 137 years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished slavery, the state university of a former slave-holding state could find itself in the business of owning people. How is this possible? Until 1980, the Patent and Trademark Office would not issue a patent for a living creature. Then, the Supreme Court, by a 5-4 margin, ruled that patents could be issued for genetically engineered bacterium. According to the Court, the law authorizes patents for "anything under the sun that is made by man." This led to patents being granted for genetically engineered animals like mice and cattle. Still, patenting a person seemed out of the question because of the Thirteenth Amendment's prohibition against slavery. But in recent years, the Patent Office has issued patents for human genes and human cells, including human stem cells. Given the state of patent law, patenting a human embryo is only the next logical step -- a step made easier by our cultural and legal refusal to recognize the full humanity of the embryo. Even if we somehow stop short of that, we'll have witnessed further erosion of respect for human life, for, as Andrew Kimbrell of the International Center for Technology Assessment puts it, human life is now defined as a "biological machine that can be cloned, manufactured, and patented . . . " Fortunately, there is still time to act. The European Patent Office recently admitted that it had made a "serious mistake" in granting a patent that would have allowed the cloning of human embryos. It scaled back the patent to bring it into line with European law outlawing human cloning. Our Patent and Trademark Office can reverse itself as well, especially if Congress makes it clear that there are boundaries to what you can patent. Christians need to make sure they do. Or else the monsters of some people's imaginations will become a grim reality, complete with a "for sale" sign. For further reading and information: To contact your representative and senators, go to this Website or call the Capitol switchboard at 202-224-3121. Erick Schonfeld, "It's My DNA, and I'd Like to Keep It That Way," Business 2.0, 27 September 2002. Aaron Zitner, "Patently Provoking a Debate," Los Angeles Times, 12 May 2002. "European office bars human cloning in patent," Scientec News. Kristen Philipkoski, "Why Does School Own Clone Patent?", Wired News, 16 May 2002. The "Bioethics in the New Century Resource Kit" contains books, papers, and other materials to help you grasp the arguments and facts involved in biotechnology and bioethics, including: The New Medicine: Life and Death after Hippocrates by Nigel M. de S. Cameron, Bioethics: A Primer for Christians by Gilbert Meilaender, "Can We Prevent the Abolition of Man?" by Charles Colson, and more. Visit the Council for Biotechnology Policy Website for more information on cloning, stem-cell research, etc. You can receive the FREE monthly "Biotech Policy Update" e-newsletter by sending an e-mail to with "subscribe" in the subject line. Learn more about the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity and the International Center for Technology Assessment.


Chuck Colson


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