Whose Life Is It, Anyway?

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...."

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Sojourners Magazine November-December 1998
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