Patent Wars

It's a race to the patent office. A company called Human Genome Sciences recently discovered a mutant gene that causes colon cancer. Immediately, the company applied for a patent on the gene. But a competing patent application was filed jointly by three universities, where scientists isolated the same gene. It's a patent war—and whoever wins the rights will reap royalties every time the gene is used for research or therapy. But wait a minute. Doesn't it strike us as odd that a part of the human body can be patented in the first place? Patents are generally granted for mechanical or chemical inventions. They're a way of rewarding people for the time and expense of inventing a new product—a new toaster or computer. But today the United States Patent and Trademark Office gives patents for plants and animals that have been genetically engineered in the laboratory—as though living things were mechanical inventions. Patents were first awarded for bacteria. An Indian microbiologist named Chakrabarty took several bacteria that eat oil and combined their genes to create a superbacterium, designed to devour oil slicks produced by tanker spills. Chakrabarty applied for a patent on his oil-eating bacterium, but the Patent Office turned him down. The case went to court, and the ruling was nothing short of revolutionary: "The fact that micro-organisms are alive," the judge declared, is "without legal significance." Think for a moment what that means. The court actually denied any legal significance to the difference between a living organism and a machine. The implications were so repugnant to many people that the case went all the way to the Supreme Court. But there the ruling was upheld. "The relevant distinction," the justices said, is "not between living and inanimate things," but whether living products can be seen as "human-made inventions." With a stroke of the pen, genetically altered living organisms were redefined as mechanical inventions. This case represents a momentous change in American legal philosophy. Living things have been legally redefined as manufactures—as machines—reduced to the legal status of a car or vacuum cleaner. And it doesn't stop with plants and animals. Today human tissue used in laboratory research can be patented as well—and often is. Several patents are also pending on human genes— which is why there's a patent war going on over the gene for colon cancer. The fact that life itself has been legally redefined as a commodity ought to disturb us deeply. As Christians we believe that Bob created life and that it demands our profound respect. But, as Senator Mark Hatfield has said, current patent laws treat "life as mere chemical manufacture and invention, with no greater value or meaning than industrial products." You and I need to educate ourselves on the moral and legal issues surrounding genetic technology. Genetic engineering has great potential for healing illness. But it could also do irreparable harm . . . if it destroys respect for the life that God has created.  


Chuck Colson



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