PATENTING OF LIFE AND THE GLOBAL MARKET IN BODY PARTS
This article has been split into sections as follows:
Biotechnology extends humanity's reach over the forces of nature as no other technology in history. Bioengineers are now manipulating life forms in much the same way as the engineers of the industrial revolution were able to separate, collect, utilize and exploit inanimate materials. Just as previous generations manipulated plastics and metals into the machines and products of the industrial age, we are now manipulating and indeed transferring living materials into the new commodities of the global age of biotechnology.
With current technology, it is becoming possible to snip, insert, edit, and program, genetic material, the very blueprint of life. With these techniques, the new engineers of life are rearranging the genetic structures of the living world creating thousands of novel microbes, plants and animals, crossing and intermixing species at will. Recent creations of biotechnology include pigs engineered with human growth genes to increase their size, tomatoes with flounder genes to resist cold temperatures, salmon with cattle growth genes to increase their size, tobacco plants with the fluorescent gene of fireflies to make them glow at night, and laboratory mice with the AIDS virus as part of their permanent genetic code.
Biotechnologists are also able to screen for and isolate valuable genetic material from virtually any living organism. They can "clone" industrial amounts of valuable DNA, hormones, enzymes and other biochemicals. Recent advances even allow the cloning of innumerable "xerox" copies of whole organisms including higher mammals.
With these new capabilities, genetic engineering represents the ultimate tool in the manipulation of life forms. For the first time, scientists have the potential of becoming the architects of life itself, the initiators of an ersatz, technological evolution designed to create new species of microbes, plants and animals which are more profitable for agriculture, industry, biomass energy production and research.
The raw material for this new enterprise is genetic resources and just as the powers of the industrial age colonized the world in search of minerals and fossil fuels, the biocolonizers are now in search of new biological materials which can be transformed into profitable products through genetic engineering. The new bioprospectors know where to find the biodiversity they need.
According to the World Resources Institute more than half the world's plant and animal species live in the rainforests of the Third World-and nowhere else on earth. The non-industrialized world's coastal regions add millions of more species to those available to the new engineers of life. The Third World is now witnessing a "gene rush" as governments and multinational corporations aggressively scout their forests and coasts in search of the new gene gold. The human body is not immune from the bioprospectors. Organ and fetal transplantation, reproductive technology, and genetic manipulation of blood and cells have made body parts including blood, organs, cells and genes extremely valuable. The international collection and sale of human parts is becoming a major worldwide industry.
Many predict that the 21st century will become "the age of biotechnology." Biocolonizing companies and governments know that the economic and political entities that control the genetic resources of the planet may well exercise decisive power over the world economy in coming decades. However , the new drive for international hegemony in the engineering and marketing of life represents and extraordinary threat to the earth's fragile ecosystems and to those living in or near them. Moreover, embarking on the long journey in which corporations and governments become the designers and sellers of "the blueprints" of life raises some of the most disturbing and important questions ever to face humanity: Do scientists and corporations have the right to alter the genetic code of life forms at will? Should we mix and match the genetic code of the entire living kingdom in the name of utility or profit? Is there a limit to the number or type of human genes which should be allowed to be engineered into other animals? Should the genetic integrity of the biotic community be preserved? Is there something sacred or reverable about life, or should life forms, including the human body and its parts, simply be viewed as commodities in the new biotechnology marketplace? Is the genetic makup of all living things the common heritage of all or can it be appropriated by corporations and governments?
The companies, governments and scientists at the forefront of the biorevolution-often goaded by scientific curiosity or profit-have avoided virtually any discussion of the extraordinary implications of their actions. Further, the so called "bioethicists" employed by various government and educational institutions appear incapable of saying no to any advance in the manipulation and sale of life, They seem intent in seeing the unthinkable become the debatable, the debatable become the justifiable, and the justifiable become the routine. While virtually all poles show that the international public is opposed to much of biotechnology and the biocolonization, this has not yet led to a major "biodemocracy" movement which demands public participation and decision-making in these issues. Without such a movement, the international biotechnology revolution with all of its unprecedented environmental and ethical implications will remain totally uncontrolled.
The age of biocolonization can be said to have "officially" been launched in 1980. That year witnessed a little-noted U.S. Supreme Court decision, Diamond v. Chakrabarty. This unheralded case will eventually be seen as one of the most important and infamous legal decisions of the century.
The case began in 1971 when Indian microbiologist Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, an employee of General Electric (GE), developed a type of bacteria that could digest oil. GE quickly applied to the U.S Patent and Trademark Office (PTO) for a patent on Chakrabarty's genetically engineered oil-eating bacteria. After several years of review, the PTO rejected the GE patent application under the traditional legal doctrine that life forms ("products of nature") are not patentable.
Eventually the case was appealed to the Supreme Court. GE and other corporations argued before the court that life forms were simply chemical products that could be patented just as any other "manufacture". A small number of public interest groups argued against the patenting of the microbe, on the grounds that "to justify patenting living organisms, those who seek such patents must argue that life has no 'vital' or sacred property...and that once this is accomplished , all living material will be reduced to arrangements of chemicals, or `mere compositions of matter.' " Opponents also reasoned that with patent profits as fuel, the accelerated drive to commercialize engineered life would eliminate all chance of objective public education and participation in the policy decisions involved.
Most expected the Supreme Court to support the Patent and Trademark Office and to reject the GE patent. However, in June 1980 the Supreme Court handed down its surprise opinion. By five-to-four margin the Court decided that Chakrabarty was to be granted his patent. The highest court in the United States had decided that life was patentable. The court dismissed the vision of a "parade of horribles" suggested by those who thought that the decision would lead to the engineering and patenting of higher life forms and the court stated that the issue was not whether there was a "relevant distinction (in patentability) between living and inanimate things", but whether living products could be seen as "human-made inventions".
The next decade was to show that both patenting proponents and opponents were correct. Patenting did provide the economic trigger for a lucrative biotechnology industry as GE had hoped. However , it also did produce the "gruesome parade of horribles" feared by many and showed how inevitable was the slippery slope from the genetic engineering and patenting of microbes, to that of plants, animals, and finally to human genes, cells, and tissues.
Some called it the "mouse that roared." For others it augured the end of nature. On April 12, 1988, the U.S Patent Office (PTO) issued the first patent on a living animal (to Harvard Professors Philip Leder and Timothy A. Stewart of San Francisco) for their creation of a transgenic mouse containing a variety of genes derived from other species, including the chicken and man. These foreign genes were engineered into the mouse's permanent germline in order to predispose it to developing cancer, making it a better research animal on which to test the virulence of various carcinogens. While the media dubbed the patented animal the "Harvard mouse" it should really have been called the "Du Pont mouse" since that company financed the Harvard research and now holds the license for its manufacture.
However, Du Pont got a lot more than just a genetically engineered mouse from the PTO. The patent licensed to DuPont is extraordinarily broad, embracing any animals of any species be they mice, rats, cats or chimpanzees that are engineered to contain a variety of cancer causing genes. The patent may well be among the broadest ever granted so far.
Eight other altered animal species including mice, rabbits and nematodes have been patented. Currently, well over 200 genetically engineered animals including genetically manipulated fish, cows, sheep and pigs are standing in line to be patented by a variety of researchers and corporations.
The Patent Office decision to patent genetically altered animals was a direct result of the misguided Chakrabarty decision by the Supreme Court. In 1985, five years after the Court's historic decision, the PTO ruled that Chakrabarty could be extended to apply to the patenting of genetically engineered plants, seeds and plant tissue. Thus the entire plant kingdom was opened up to patent protection. Then on April 7, 1987, the Patent Office issued a ruling specifically extending the Chakrabarty decision to include all "multicellular living organisms, including animals." The radical new patenting policy suddenly transformed a Supreme Court decision on patenting microbes into one allowing the patenting of all life forms on Earth including animals. Under the ruling a patented animal's legal status is no different from that of other manufactures such as automobiles or tennis balls.
It is doubtful that the Patent Office was prepared for the controversy that it stirred up by issuing its edict permitting animal patenting. Editorials across the country lambasted the new policy. Bioethicist Robert Nelson saw it as "a staggering decision...Once you start patenting life, "he asked, "is there no stopping it?"
The revolutionary 1987 ruling on the partentability of animals did appear to have a silver lining: the PTO ruling excluded human beings from patentability. The restriction on patenting human beings was based on the Thirteenth Amendment of the Constitution, the antislavery amendment, which prohibits ownership of a human being. Unfortunately, there were several major loopholes. For one, under the PTO's 1987 ruling, embryos and fetuses, are patentable, and so, apparently is the patenting of separate human organs, tissues, cells, and genes.
The first human materials to be patented were cell lines- a sample of cells grown through artificial laboratory cultivation. Soon after the Chakrabarty decision researchers began to file applications to patent cell lines which were valuable for the study of biologic processes and which could test the effects of chemicals and pharmaceuticals on human cells. Cell lines were just the begining. On October 29, 1991, the patent office granted patent rights to a naturally occurring part of the human body. Systemix Inc., of Palo Alto, California, was given corporate control of human bone marrow "stem cells." (Stem cells are the progenitors of all types of cells in the blood.) What makes the patent remarkable, and legally suspect, is that the patented cells had not been manipulated, engineered or altered in any way. The PTO had never before allowed a patent on an unaltered part of the human body. Under the patent any researcher who wishes to use stem cells in the search for cures for disease will have to come to a licensing agreement with Systemix. Systemix now has a monopoly on human stem cells. Peter Quesenberry, medical affairs vice chairman of the Leukemia Society of America, has pointed out how outlandish it is "to belive you can patent a stem cell. Where do you draw the line?" he asks. "Can you patent a hand?" As author and ethicist Thomas Murray adds, "they've [Systemix] invaded the commons of the body and claimed a piece of it for themselves."
The patent office has also allowed the patenting of serveral human genes, and there are now scores of patent applications pending on thousands of them, including the recently discovered gene purportedly responsible for some forms of breast cancer. The granting of patents on human genes to government agencies and private corportations creates a unique and profoundly disturbing scenario. The entire human genome, the tens of thousands of genes that are our most intimate common heritage, will be owned by a handful of companies and governments. We are faced with athe privatization of our genetic heritage-the corporate enclosure of our genetic commons.
Many are concerned that the patenting of genes and cells will ultimately allow for the patenting of the entire human body. Derek Wood, head of the biotechnology patent office in London comments:
"This is clearly an area that is going to prove a pretty horrendous problem in the future. The difficulty is in deciding where to draw the line between [patenting] genetic material and human beings per se."
According to published reports, the European Patent Office (EPO) has already recieived patent applications that would allow the patenting of women, genetically engineered to produce valuable human proteins in their mammary glands. The patent jointly filed by Baylor College of Medicine and Grenada Biosciences of Texas was carefully crafted to include all female mammals including humans under its coverage. Brian Lucas, a British patent attorney who representee Baylor College had stated that the application was designed to include women because "Someone, somewhere may decide that humans are patentable."
As cells, genes, animals and plants are now engineered and patented, most of the "gruesome parade of horribles" predicted by those opposing the 1980 Chakrabarty decision have become, in dizzying rapidity, realities.
Pig No. 6707 was meant to be "super": super fast growing, super big, super meat quality. It was supposed to be a technological breakthrough in animal husbandry among the first of a series of high tech animals that would revolutionize agriculture and food production. Researchers at the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) implanted the human gene governing growth into the pig while it was still an embryo. The idea was to have the human growth gene become part of the pig's genetic code and thus create an animal that, with the aid of the new gene, would grow far larger than any before.
To the surprise of the bioengineers, the human genetic material that they had injected into the animal altered its metabolism in an unpredictable and unfortunate way. Transgenic pig No. 6707 was in fact a tragicomic creation, a "super cripple." Excessively hairy, riddled with arthritis, and cross eyed, the pig rarely even stood up, the wretched product of a science without ethics.
Despite such setbacks, researchers around the globe are creating thousands of transgenic creatures like No. 6707. They have inserted over two dozen different genes into various fish, rodents and mammals. Livestock containing human genes have become commonplace at research installation in the United States. Carp, catfish and trout have been engineered with numbers of genes from humans, cattle and rats to boost growth and reproduction. Researchers have used cell fusion techniques to create "geeps," astonishing sheep-goat combinations with the faces and horns of goats and the bodies of sheep. Chickens have been engineered so that they no longer contain the genetic trait for brooding, in order to make them more efficient egg producers.
Genetic engineers in the United States and Canada have also begun to successfully clone higher mammals. Although glitches have occurred, biotechnologists now feel they can alter animals to be more efficient sources of food and then clone unlimited copies of their patented "perfect" lamb, pig or cow.
Besides food animals, the U.S. government and several corporations are also patenting and field testing numerous food plants with unique genetic combinations. Among these new creations are cantaloupe and yellow squash containing genes from bacteria and viruses, potatoes with chicken and wax moth genes, tomatoes with flounder and tobacco genes, corn with firefly genes, and rice with pea genes. The vast majority of these plants have been genetically altered to increase their shelf life or appearance. Virtually none of these genetic changes have any relationship to improving nutrition.
As with the creature of genetically engineered animals, there is good reason to be concerned about the new genetically engineered plants. Of immediate urgency is the threat of biological pollution. When hundreds (and soon thousands) of novel, genetically engineered plants are taken out of the laboratory and introduced into the environment, ecological havoc could result. Scientists compare the risk of releasing genetically engineered organisms into the environment with that of introducing exotic organisms into the North American habitats. Although most of these organisms have adapted to our ecosystem, several such as chestnut blight, kudzu vine, Dutch elm disease and the gypsy moth have been catastrophically destructive. In one survey, one hundred top United States environmental scientists warned of "genetic engineering's imprudent or careless use... could lead to devastating damage to the ecology of the planet."
There are also potential human health problems. In May 1992 the U.S Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of genetically engineered bovine growth hormone in cows to increase milk production. The animal drug produced by Monsanto not only has devastating health impacts on dairy cows but also creates milk which has significantly greater amounts of hormones and antibiotics. This milk is unlabeled and being sold in countries around the globe including the United states, Mexico, Russia, and India. There are also significant concerns about consumption of a genetically engineered tomato approved for sale by the FDA and produced by Calgene that contains an antibiotic resistant gene that might confer resistance to common antibiotics used to treat children.
The increased creation, patenting and use of genetically engineered plants and animals could also have a devastating impact on small farmers throughout the world. Only large highly capitalized farms are likely to survive the increased overhead costs of growing and raising these patented organisms and the price fluctuations caused by greater amounts of produce flooding the market. Moreover new techniques in cloning tissue of various plants could eliminate outdoor farming of certain crops altogether. As noted by one economist, "Biotechnology will likely become dominant in the coming decades and will drive activities from the farm to the nonfarm sector at an increasing rate... Full-time farming as we know it will cease to exist."
The controversy over genetically engineered animals and plants will certainly grow in the coming years, especially as more genetically engineered foods enter the global marketplace. Questions will continue to be raised about the unprecedented risks these organisms pose for human health and the environment, and society will increasingly confront the profound ethical concern over the appropriateness of unlimited cross-species genetic transfers and the patenting of life.
One powerful new community of resistance was announced on May 18, 1995. Nearly two hundred religious leaders announced their opposition to the patenting of animals and human materials. The unprecedented coalition included many Catholic bishops, as will as leaders of most of the Protestant denominations, and representatives of Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist and Hindu groups. The published statement of the coalition of religious leaders was clear, "We believe that humans and animals are creations of God, not humans, and as such should not be patentable as human inventions." Southern Baptist leader Richard Land summed up the outrage of many religious leaders when he stated, "This [patenting] is not a slippery slope. This is a drop into the abyss...we are seeing the ultimate commercial reduction of the very nature of human life and animal life."
Still, many in the science community and in the media remain undaunted in their support of the alteration and patenting of life. Over several years, The New York Times has, several times, singled out the opponents of patenting for editorial criticism. In a lead editorial entitled "Life, Industrialized," the Times succinctly stated a shockingly reductionist view of life perfectly suited to the new age of biocolonization:
Life is special, and humans even more so, but biological machines are still machines that now can be altered, cloned and patented. The consequences will be profound but taken a step at a time can be managed.
The biotechnologists and the new marketeers of life are not only after the Third World's microbes, plants and animals, they are also attempting to expropriate the body parts of people around the world. The development of techniques such as blood transfusions, plasmapheresis and organ transplantation have saved countless lives. Despite their benefits, these advances pose serious risks especially to the peoples of the Third World.
Blood, organs, reproductive materials, small amounts of human tissues, even genes and cells have suddenly become valuable. The new medical technologies have created a demand in body parts which vastly exceeds supply, and the trade in human parts and elements has rapidly become a worldwide industry, a boom market in the human body. Responding to public pressure many First World nations have restricted the sale of human parts. This has resulted in the Third World becoming the central focus of the body part entrepreneurs.
Blood transfusion was the first major biological technology to be used successfully in medicine. In recent times, as transfusion technology became more sophisticated, major pharmaceutical and biotechnology corporations began relying on the blood of those in the Third World for their profits. Grisly reports began to emerge of the new "Vampirism" occurring in South America and Asia as blood centres opened up to buy the blood of the poor. One well publicized instance involved Anastasio Somoza, the brutal dictator whose family occupied the Nicaraguan presidency for nearly half a century.
In the 1970's Somoza opened a blood collection centre in Managua called "Plasmaferesis." The centre brought blood from the poor and undernourished and forced political prisoners to donate blood. Remarkably, the centre was licensed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the plasma collected was sold primarily to the United States and Western Europe. Each year over 100,000 "donations" were collected, two-thirds of which were sold for export. The centre, like so many throughout the Third World, was virtually unregulated.
While the international blood trade was eventually halted in Nicaragua, similar centres continue to operate in countries throughout the Third World. The United States and Western Europe remain the main beneficiaries of the blood industry. By the end of the 1980s, the United States had become the world's leading dealer in blood plasma products. One commentator called the U.S "the OPEC of blood."
Transfusion technology was the first advancement which led to the international marketing of body parts. But then, in the 1980s, organ transplantation came of age. Thanks to better surgical techniques, greater understanding of the body's immune stustem, and the development of effective drugs to combat rejection, survival rates for those undergoing transplantations improved dramatically. With each new success, the numbers of organ transplantations in the United States and Europe skyrocketed. Since 1982, the yearly number of heart transplants in the United States has increased twenty times; the number of liver transplants forty times. Tens of billions of dollars are spent on this technology worldwide. The new and urgent demand for new organs, combined with the prohibition of organ sales in many Western countries such as the United States, Great Britain and Germany, has resulted in a growing international market for human organs. Each year, tens of thousands of organs are being bought and sold in India, Eastern Europe, the Soviet Union, Egypt and other African countries. Several international organ procurement businesses have been initiated. In may poor countries donors sell the irreplaceable to buy food and shelter and to pay off debts. Currently, kidneys in Egypt sell for $10,000 to $15,000. In India the going rate for a kidney from a live donor is $1,500; for a cornea, $4,000; for a patch of skin $50. In many countries it is rourtine to see renal patients pay for newspaper advertisements offering living donors up to $4,300 for the organ.
In India, a recent survey found that a majority of paid donors are poor laborers for whom the price paid for an organ could be more than they could save in a lifetime. One donor who set up a modest tea shop with the money paid for his kidney commented, "I am even prepared to sell one of my eyes or even a hand for a price." In many places, the practice among the poor is, if they have two kidneys or eyes, one is for sale.
In 1991, the World Health Organisation reported that organ selling in the Third World had reached "alarming proportions." "It is a burning issue for us," said one WHO official, "and we are trying to decide how to deal with it." In 1987 a conference of European Health Minister called organ sales in the world's poorest countries, "one of the greatest risks man has ever run: that of giving a value to his body, a price to his life."
But, while blood and organs are being colonized, the human body element of greatest future potential value is the gene. Throughout the world, scientists are using screening techniques to locate and identify genes which might be of enormous value in curing disease, or in imparting desirable cosmetic physical or metal traits (high I.Q., blond hair, slimness). The discovery and patenting of any such gene would bring unprecedented profits. In the U.S alone the government has launched a $3 billion dollar Human Genome Project which is attempting to compile a complete map of human genes and their attributes. Japan, Canada and Germany have similar initiatives, and a growing hoard of private companies are also involved in mapping and sequencing the human genome in the hop of discovering genes of value.
In 1990, scientists in North America and Europe launched a new initiative in the international hunt for new genes. They announced a global campaign to take blood, skin tissue and hair samples from hundreds of "endangered" and unique human communities throughout the world. The initiative is called the Human Genome Diversity Project (HGDP). The HGDP's initial five year effort to collect human DNA samples from a minimum of 400 indigenous communities has an estimated cost of between $23 and $35 million. The project was initially funded by the United States National Science Foundation (NSF). Out of a larger group of 722 targeted communities the project will select between four and six hundred. Blood samples from twenty-five unrelated individuals per population will be studied and used to create "transformed" cell lines of each population. In addition anthropologists expect to collect blood, saliva, and hair samples from at least ten times as many individuals in the same and neighbouring populations. All the cell lines and samples will be stored at the American Type Culture Collection in Rockville Maryland. All will be available for patenting and commercial exploitation.
Particularly targeted in this process are the world's indigenous people. The case of the Guaymi is instructive. The Guaymi are an indigenous people of Panama, direct descendants of various Central American Indian groups, who now find themselves in the centre of the international controversy over international biocolonization.
In recent years epidemiologist have been aware that there is a high prevalence of a virus known as HTLV-II in the Guaymi. HTLV-II infection has been loosely associated with incidence of hairy cell leukemia, but comparatively little is known about the virus' disease associations and transmission routes. Researchers wasted little time in exploiting the Guaymis apparent genetic predisposition to the virus. United States scientists descended on the Guaymis taking their blood for analysis. Of special interest was the blood sample obtained in early 1990 from a 26 year old Guaymi woman, mother of two, who had contracted leukemia (but who eventually survived).
The researchers claimed that they had "oral consent" from the woman to obtain and utilise her blood in any way they saw fit. However, they do not describe how this consent could have lived up to the requirement of "informed consent". How, for example, could the researchers have adequately explained to the young mother that they were going to use sophisticated biotechnology techniques to analyze her blood and cultivate a cell line from her sample- one that might produce profitable patented pharmaceuticals for transnational corporations? Nor do they detail how they could have explained to the Guaymi woman that they were going to apply for international patent ownership on the cell line created from her body fluids. But this is what the U.S researchers did. In November 1991, on behalf of the Department of Commerce, an international patent application was filed on the cell line cultivated from the blood of the Guaymi mother. CDC scientist Jonathan Kaplan, is listed on the patent application as an "inventor" of the Guaymi women's cell line. He states that he filed the patent application because "the government encourages scientists to patent anything of interest."
Revelation of the patent's existence shocked the Guaymi people. Isidro Acosta, President of the Guaymi General Congress states, "It's fundamentally immoral, contrary to the Guaymi view of nature and our place in it. To patent human material.... to take human DNA and patent its products... that violates the integrity of life itself, and our deepest sense of morality."
Thanks to an international alarm sounded by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), and the fact that the patent had not resulted in any commercial application, the Department of Commerce abandoned the Guaymi application in November, 1993. However, numerous patent claims on cell lines of indigenous peoples, including those from the communities in Papua New Guinea and the Solomon islands, are still pending.
Leaders in both the religious and indigenous communities have condemned the Human Genome Diversity Project. Methodist Bishop Kenneth Carder called the effort to colonize the genes of indigenous people "genetic slavery... Instead of whole persons being marched in shackles to the market block, human cell-line and gene sequences are labeled patented and sold to the highest bidders."
Humans are not the only target of the biocolonizers. Corporations have also begun scouring the globe for valuable animals and plants and then lining up for patents on the newly discovered or engineered life forms. In one remarkable example saeveral Northern corporations, including W.R. Grace have been granted over 50 U.S. patents on the Neem tree of India. For millennia this tree, its bark and leaves have been used as natural pesticide, a treatment for disease and as a dentifrice. Companies learning of these traditional uses have appropriated and patented not only the tree but the indigenous knowledge about the tree's many uses.
The patenting of indigenous animals, plants and microbes is inherently unjust and inequitable, not to mention immoral. Despite the immeasurable contribution that Third World indigenous knowledge and biodiversity have make to the wealth of the industrialized countries, corporations, governments and aid agencies of the North continue to create legal and political frameworks which lead to the bizarre result that the Third World has to buy what it originally produced. When Northern corporations patent important Southern agricultural and medical plants, the result is often that millions of farmers and other peoples throughout the globe are prevented by the patent from freely using the seeds and plants they have relied on for millennia.
On March 1,1995 after six years of debate, the European Parliament rejected a European Union directive that would have allowed the patenting of virtually all life forms. The historic vote was a significant blow to life patenting in Europe, and represents a surprise victory of ethics over profit and for "biodemocracy". The action of the European Parliament in rejecting life patents reflects the growing opposition to such patenting in Europe that culminated in numerous street demonstrations in Brussels prior to the vote. For years polls in Europe have shown overwhelming opposition to life patenting and especially animal and human materials patenting.
The U.S. Congress has taken no action against the engineering or patenting of life. However, polls of Americans show a high resistance to biotechnology. A 1992 survey by the U.S. Department of Agriculture showed that 90% of those polled opposed the insertion of human genes into animals, 75% opposed the insertion of animal genes into plants, 60% opposed the insertion of foreign genes into animals, and over half felt that using biotechnology to change animals was "morally wrong." Biodemocracy scored high in the poll. About 80% felt that the public should have a greater voice in biotechnology decisions, believing that "citizens have too little to say about whether or not biotechnology should be used."
Recently new international treaties such as GATT and the Convention on Biological Diversity further legally codify the right to gene hunters to seize and patent the bodies and resources of indigenous peoples and restrict the ability of governments to control or regulate the process. Clearly a mass movement for biodemocracy is needed if the international drive toward the engineering and patenting of life is to be halted. Biodemocracy involves both respecting and acting on the will of the people in restricting biotechnology and banning the patenting of life. It also involves the key ethical insight that all life forms have intrinsic value and genetic integrity, and cannot be viewed as the raw material out of which to fashion new commodities to be traded for profit on the global market.
Biodemocracy required that nation states follow the example of the European Parliament and reject the patenting of life. It also requires a halt to the biocolonization of the earth's genetic resources by governments and transnational corporations. In addition, biodemocracy requires the immediate cessation of the collection of cells and blood from indigenous peoples through the Human Genome Diversity Project or similar initiatives as well as the sordid international trafficking in blood and human organs.
Genetic engineering is potentially catastrophic for the environment and all processes of life, and is profoundly unethical. Biodemocracy would lead to an immediate moratorium on such practices.
Reproduced with the permission of Edward Goldsmith, co-editor with Jerry Mander, of The Case Against the Global Economy and For a Turn Towards the Local - Sierra Club Books; fax 1-415-957-5793.