Patenting Life and the Christian Tradition Fr. Sean McDonagh, SSC

Last week I discussed how the US Supreme Courts opened the flood gates to patenting living organisms in the Diamond V. Chakravarty decision.  The Court’s view of life also differs radically from the way life is understood, revered and cherished in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The first line of the Bible insists that everything was created by a living God: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1: 1).  The text is very clear that all living beings, including humans beings, are creatures of God.


Human beings have a special place in creation, as representatives of God, (Gen. 1: 16). They show their dependence on God in the way they relate to God, to each other, and to the earth.  In the initial covenant between God and humanity (Gen. 1: 28-31) humans were not allowed to eat flesh. Even after the flood, when Noah was allowed to kill animals for food, there is a prohibition on consuming the animal’s blood (Gen.  9. 3-4).  Blood, in the ancient Near-East, was considered to be the seat of life.


The first account of creation goes on to teach that all beings have their own inherent value. This dignity derives from the fact that they are created by God (Gen. 1: 12, 19-25).  This inherent dignity of creatures increases and intensifies the higher one moves up the chain of being.  In the second account of creation the ‘man’ is given the privilege of naming the animals. (Gen. 2:19-20). The text recognizes that all creatures, including humans, have a common origin. While naming gives humans dominion over other creatures, it does not give them the right to oppress and exploit them. Rather, such dominion is to be patterned on God’s own care and sovereignty, as  expressed in Psalm 72: 4-6, where the righteous king combines  concern for the poor with care for all the creatures of the earth.


Patenting life is a fundamental attack on this understanding of life as interconnected, mutually dependent and a gift of God. It opts instead for an atomized, isolated understanding of life.  The Bible also recognizes that humans are companions and stewards of other creatures in the community of  life (Gen. 2:15 – 17). God settles the ‘man’ in the Garden and invites him to cultivate it and care for it. Certain limits are put on man’s use of the natural world.  God gave man the admonitions. “You may eat indeed of all the trees in the garden. Nevertheless, of the  tree of knowledge of good and evil you are not to eat, for on that day you eat it you shall surely die” (Gen. 2: 16- 17). In his encyclical on social justice, Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, Pope John Paul II interprets the Genesis 2: 16-17 text as placing limitations on human misuse of the natural world.


Stewardship does not mean that humans are inventors or owners of life, or that they can dominate and exploit everything in creation.  God, and only God, is the Creator of life, and all life, including human life, is dependent on God.  The Bible is very critical of those who, puffed up with arrogance and pride, refuse to recognize that they are creatures and thus, dependent on God.  In the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11) humans repudiate God’s sovereignty and attempt to storm heaven by their own power.


Living organisms are not merely, ‘gene machines’, or ‘gene collections’ to be manipulated and exploited for profit.  That is why, after the US Patent and Trademark Office had patented their first animal in 1987, a group of 24 religious leaders issued the following statement:


“The decision of the US Patent Office to allow the patenting of genetically engineered animals presents fundamental dangers to humanity’s relationship with the natural world. Reverence for all life created by God may be eroded by subtle economic pressures to view animal life as if it were an industrial product invented and manufactured by humans: [1]


“The dominion granted to (humans) man by the Creator is not an absolute power, nor can one speak of freedom to ‘use and abuse’ or to dispose of things as one pleases. The limitations imposed from the beginning by the Creator himself and expressed symbolically by the prohibition not to ‘eat of the fruit of the tree’ shows clearly enough that, when it comes to the natural world, we are subject not only to biological laws, but also to moral ones, which cannot be violated with impunity. [2]



[1] Quoted in Kimbrell, op.cit., page 201.


[2] Sollicitudo Rei Socialis, No. 34.


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