There should be no patents on life. Fr. Seán McDonangh, SSC (June 24, 2009)

 

For the past two weeks I have been critiquing  Anatole Krittiger’s abstract on “Intellectual Property Rights; Problems and Solutions” which appeared in the preparatory booklet of  the Pontifical Academy of Sciences’ Study Week on Genetically Modified Crops(GMOs). Naturally, I would prefer to have read his complete paper before commenting on it. However, from reading the abstract he seems quite at home with the neo-liberal understanding of patents which he feels could be tweaked a little here or there to make them less onerous for the poor.

 

In my book,  Patenting Life? Stop: Is Corporate Greed Forcing Us to Eat Genetically Engineered Food, I quote from the writings of Celia Deane Drummond who is both a theologian and biologist.[1] While she argues that while GM food should be thoroughly evaluated in terms both of its impact on human health and on the environment she makes a case for not ruling out genetic engineering in principle.  In general, I would agree with that opinion, though I would also include a ‘development’ criteria in evaluating  the impact of GMOs on the poor.

 

However, when it comes to patenting life, I believe that there is an overwhelming moral argument against it.  In a way it is like human slavery. There is no good slavery.  True, slaves were treated better in some societies than in others, but that does not mean that there is a morally, justifiable form of slavery. There isn’t.  All slavery is wrong and so is patenting life. Over time, the patenting scramble will remove many life forms from common, shared ownership. Under a patenting regime, these life forms are becoming the private property of Northern Transnational Corporations.

 

In a world of patents, life which in most religions and traditional cultures is considered a sacred and a gift from God, is now seen as a human invention, a mere collection of genes and chemicals that can be engineered by adding or deleting a gene and can be bought and sold by the patent holder during the duration of the patent. Such a reductionist, mechanistic and materialistic concept of life is at variance with the tenets of all the major religions. With patents human beings claim to have invented plants and animas and to have exclusive control over them.  As the scramble to patent living forms, including human genes, gathers pace across society, it will undoubtedly devalue the meaning of life.  No part of the earth will be considered sacred.

 

Living organisms are not merely gene machines to be manipulated and exploited for profit. This is why after the U. S. Patent and Trademark Office patented the first animal in 1987, a group of twenty-four religious leaders issues 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 for humans.” [2] (underling mine).

 

I would argue that this is what Pope John Paul II had in mind when he wrote in his social encyclical Sollicitudo Rei Socialis (Concern for Social Matters) that Genesis 2: 16-17 places legitimate limits on humans’ use of the natural world. He writes:“The dominion granted to human beings (man) by the Creator is not an absolute power, nor can one speak of a freedom to use and abuse, 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.” (No.34).

 

Surely, the limitations referred to by the Pope must include respect for the genetic integrity of other species, and must exclude any claim to ownership of life?

 

Pope John Paul II discussed the question of genetic engineering in his World Day of Peace message for 1999. He wrote; “recent developments in the field of genetic engineering present a profoundly disquieting challenge… Life can never be downgraded to the level of a thing.” This is precisely what patenting does.  It denies the fundamental notion that life is primarily a gift to be shared with others, and not something to be hoarded and treated as an inanimate object.


[1] Sean McDonagh, Patenting Life? Stop!, Is Corporate Greed Forcing Us To Eat Genetically Engineered Food? Dominican Publications, Dublin, 2004.

[2] Andrew Kimbrel, The Human Body Shop, Harper, San Francisco, 1993, page 201

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s