Christian Worldview

Patent Pending

Three years ago, the U.S. Patent Office received the first application in history asking for the right to patent the genome of a human being. According to the Seattle Times, two Americans listed themselves as “inventors” of the cell line of a Guaymi Indian woman from Panama. A cell line contains the complete genetic code, or genome, of an individual. The Americans obtained the woman’s blood—and hence, her cell line—when she entered a hospital for treatment. But then someone alerted the Guaymi tribe of the patent attempt. Tribal leaders called the patent application “fundamentally immoral”—and demanded the cell line be returned to the tribe. The tribal leaders are raising a good question: Should we allow people to patent pieces of the human body? 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. And now patents are being awarded for human cell lines. The fact that life itself has been legally redefined as a commodity ought to disturb us deeply. As Christians we believe that God created life and that it demands our profound respect. But, as Sen. 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


  • Facebook Icon in Gold
  • Twitter Icon in Gold
  • LinkedIn Icon in Gold

Sign up for the Daily Commentary