The Common Good
November-December 1998

Whose Life Is It, Anyway?

by Joe Nangle | November-December 1998

Ecology does not begin and end with the human, but it certainly includes us. All other
beings share the planet and the cosmos with us, and we with them.

Ecology does not begin and end with the human, but it certainly includes us. All other beings share the planet and the cosmos with us, and we with them. The entire creation exists in this web of being, this most basic community.

In the light of human co-existence with all else that is, and of our growing preoccupation with threats to the created order, one danger in particular is especially ominous. And it comes from a most unexpected source-the U.S. Patent Office. A little history is in order here.

Thomas Jefferson introduced America’s first Patent Act, which became law in 1793. It provided inventors a measure of monopoly on "any new and useful art, machine, manufacture, or composition of matter, or any new useful improvement [thereof]" that they developed. Since that early and farseeing initiative of Jefferson’s, the office has issued more than five million patents. Some of the notable ones include the telegraph (1840), the telephone (1876), the internal combustion engine (1898), the "flying machine" (1906), the cathode ray, forerunner to TV picture tubes (1938). Patents are held on all sorts of things.

Enter Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, an Indian microbiologist, who while employed by General Electric applied in 1971 for a patent on a "bug" that could eat crude oil. By shuffling genes and changing bacteria, Chakrabarty thought he had a super bacteria that could devour oil slicks from tanker spills. In the end G.E. lost interest in the "bug’s" ability to clean up oil mess, but not in its patentability. This patent claim provided the test case for patenting life.

In 1980, after years of legal and ethical wrangling, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a patent on Chakrabarty’s microbe. One ethicist at the time wrote: "The principle used in [this case] says that there is nothing in the nature of a being, no, not even in the human patentor himself, that makes him immune to being patented...."

THAT LANDMARK decision has set humanity on a very slippery slope. In 1988 the first patent on a living animal was issued-to Harvard Professor Philip Leder-for the "creation" of a mouse that contained a variety of genes found in other species. One does not need a doctorate in science to predict where this is headed. Indeed a ruling from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office declared human embryos and fetuses as patentable, as are genetically engineered human tissues, cells, and genes. The slippery slope threatens to become a free fall, especially in view of the enormous profit possibilities in this field.

We might call all of this "micro-ecology" as distinct from the more obvious and overwhelming issues of global warming or deforestation and desertification. But the patenting of life, up to and including human life, strikes us as every bit as ominous for the living global community.

Those who argue in favor of life, and against its becoming a commodity through patenting, speak eloquently. "To justify patenting living organisms, those who seek such patents must argue that life has no ‘vital’ or sacred property....If a ruling in favor of patenting genetically engineered living organisms is forthcoming, then manufactured life-high and low-will have been categorized as less than life, as nothing but common chemicals" (from an amicus brief in the Chakrabarty case, 1979).

Finally, it seems that the question must come down to theology-or better said, to our understanding of the community of life on earth and our relation to the Creator. The patenting of life is a matter of stupendous public interest. On this one we cannot hide behind the usual "respect each one’s individual belief," for this is a question of ultimateness-of where life comes from and of its destiny.

JOE NANGLE, OFM, is executive director of Franciscan Mission Service and a member of Assisi Community in Washington, D.C.

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