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As technology begins to reshape the world around us at a growing pace, we can’t help but shift the focus inward. Advances in biotechnology are unfolding at unprecedented rates, and while we begin to crack the code of life through the recent developments on the human genome project, the overall subject matter of ethics comes to mind. Now, one might question, if technology is about improvement and biotechnology is about improving life than why would anyone question the ethics of such? However, it recently has come to the point that improvement of life is bordering on manipulation of life, and many are throwing their hands up in moral protest. Consider the recent long-standing debate over the ethics of DNA patenting. Doesn’t holding a commercial patent over human genetic material offend our dignity as humans? Or is genetic material merely nothing more than proteins made from various chemicals no less subject to patenting than plastics, alloys, textile fabrics, pharmaceuticals, or other synthetic materials and compounds? Valid arguments could be made either way. The debate over genetic patenting involves the careful consideration of several perspectives including those of the legal, scientific, biotechnical, and economical fields of study. After analyzing the conflicting opinions of the different fields of study, one may procure a more knowledgeable understanding on which to base a moral framework suitable for evaluating the righteousness of DNA patenting.
A proper starting point for the research of genetic patenting would logically begin with a basic understanding of the patenting system in the United States. The idea behind the patent, as established by our forefathers, is stated in the Constitution: “to promote the progress of science and useful arts by securing the authors and inventors the exclusive right to their respective writings and discoveries.” Further stated in the Constitution are the stipulations and requirements for receiving a patent. The four criteria included were: novelty(the invention is new, innovative, and is not obvious), utility(the invention could be used for more than just hypothetical use), enabling description(the invention is described in great detail-enough so that someone skilled in the field could benefit), and human ingenuity(Resnick, 3). Once the proper criteria has been met, a patent is issued which allows the inventor “only negative rights to exclude others from making, using, or commercializing his or her invention”(Resnick, 3).
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The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) is the government institution that mandates the patenting process and insures that the laws are properly suited for the evolving technology. Founded after the first patent was issued by Congress in 1790, the USPTO developed a patenting system which has been amended and revised numerous times over the course of the twentieth century (Resnick 2). Now the office is responsible for overseeing the patenting process of small strands of human DNA. The debate over the patenting of “purified” human DNA sequences first struck the court system in 1980 in the trial Diamond v. Chakrabarty, in which the “U.S. Supreme Court ruled that life forms are patentable as long as they are the product of human ingenuity”(Resnick 2). Although the court recognized that naturally occurring organisms aren’t subject to patenting, Chakrabarty was able to convince them that his genetically engineered bacteria resulted from human ingenuity and research.
Aside from the ethical debate, several different reasons are given by proponents (most of whom are scientists and lawyers) of DNA patenting as arguments for why genetic patenting is necessary. Funding for research seems to be the most significant worry of those who fear the absence of genetic patenting. Most researchers would state that “without exclusive rights, no one would be willing to invest in research and development”(US Department of Energy-Human Genome Project). Because genetic research is inconceivable without proper funding and the government cannot grant all the money required for research in every area, such high priced, highly technological research would be pointless, from the investor’s stand point, unless exclusive returns can be secured through the patenting system. Thus, patenting ensures that research will be properly funded by protecting the investor. Previously, such protection could only be achieved by withholding all information about discoveries/inventions in complete secrecy. This is another strong argument made regarding the necessity of gene patenting laws. The claim is that secrecy inhibits the common goal of research. If every researcher holds all of his discoveries in secret, than “advances in science, medicine, and agriculture will be curtailed, information will not be shared”(Bruce). Therefore, advocates for gene patenting feel that the research and information required for the forward progression of biotech research can only remain public through the implementation of patent protection. Further evidence of the need for gene patenting laws would also be the argument that researchers would be guaranteed some sort of payment for their work which they could use to continue their studies. Also, one could argue that the public knowledge of research as well as the protection provided by patents would force research into new and unexplored areas. In other words, patents prevent wasted duplication of research and effort. (Bruce)
Opponents of the idea of genetic patenting cite various reasons for their position. While there are a few solid arguments against the necessity for gene patenting, they failed to hold up in court. Nevertheless, the true debate is that which cannot be argued in any court. The controversy is not over the necessity of gene patenting, but rather the correctness of it. Contenders would argue that DNA patenting insults our dignity as humans.
Many would dispute the patenting of DNA sequences on the grounds that it treats humans as commodities. They cling to the idea that because our genes are products of nature, we cannot claim them as an invention. Furthermore, (Bruce) argues, “If they (genes) are nothing more than products of industry then I believe we are losing something of our humanity by putting them in the same box as widgets (page 2). A bit more extreme is the idea propounded by several religious leaders on May 18, 1995 that likens DNA patenting to slavery. “DNA patenting, according to some critics, is like slavery in that it involves complete commodification of human DNA”(Resnick 9). In other words, some feel that gene patenting violates human dignity because it treats people as things that can be bought or sold. Many would further argue that even though we might not really buy and sell our own DNA, just applying market jargon to natural human features is a form of commodification, and is therefore, undignified.(Resnick 8).
People of religious background would reject the notion of gene patenting as undignified for various faith-based reasons. Catholics believe that humans have dignity or moral worth because they were created in God’s image. “Theologians have interpreted this claim to mean that God endowed human beings with moral, spiritual, emotional, and cognitive attributes that reflect His divine nature. Thus, human beings have moral worth because God made human beings and God endows what He creates with moral worth”(Resnick 6). Therefore, the argument made by many religions is that if something has intrinsic value for religious reasons then it cannot and should not be expressed in terms of the market for the sake of its own dignity.
All too relevant to this ethical dilemma is Immanuel Kant’s discourse on human dignity. Kant has written extensively on the topic of human dignity and may shed light on the issue. Immanuel Kant’s general moral principle, the categorical imperative, supports the idea that human beings have intrinsic moral value. “According to a version of the categorical imperative known as the principle of humanity, we have a moral duty to treat all human beings as ends-in-themselves, not merely as means to other ends”(Resnick 6). Moreover, Kant would also state that “humans have ‘an intrinsic worth, i.e., dignity,’ because they are rational agents, that is, free agents capable of making their own decisions, setting their own goals, and guiding their conduct by reason”(Rachels 133-34). Because Kant stresses the intrinsic worth all rational agents, and considering his categorical imperative, I think Kant would see the patenting of human genetic material as a means to an end as well as an insult to human dignity.
I have considered the question of whether human DNA patents violate human dignity. Several strong arguments were given on behalf of those who approve of DNA patenting. I learned that gene patenting is beneficial in securing funds for research, returning funds for research, and for the forward development of biotechnology. I also found that certain people would find genetic patenting to be a disgrace to human dignity. Certain radicals liken the practice to slavery saying that it is complete commodification of humanity, while many religious persons would view the practice as immoral on the grounds that God has endowed humans with an intrinsic worth which cannot be put into market terminology of any kind. Similarly, I have evaluated Immanuel Kant’s philosophy on human dignity and the intrinsic worth of the rational moral agent.
I have come to the conclusion that DNA patents would only offend human dignity in the instance where complete commodification of the human being occurs. Since we have not yet put out a patent over a DNA sequence that is even remotely close to the entirety of the human genome, complete commodification has not occurred, and human dignity has not been violated. Furthermore, because patenting of the gene cannot be considered the same as a whole person, there can be no violation of Kant’s ultimate moral principle. Nevertheless, a day will come when the genome will be mapped out entirely, and one must wonder what path genetic patenting is sending us down in terms of the future. While I may not see the current DNA patenting as a violation of human dignity, it is most certainly a threat in the sense that they apply market terminology to the human body. It is simply a case of line drawing. How far down the path of commodification of the human body must we travel before it is considered unethical and offensive to our human dignity?
Bruce, Donald. Society, Religion and Technology Project, “Patenting Life? An Introduction to the Issues.” http://dspace.dial.pipex.com/srtscot/srtpage3.shtml
Rachels, James. The Elements of Moral Philosophy. New York City: McGraw-Hill College, 1999.
Resnick, David B. “DNA Patents and Human Dignity.” Journal of Law, Medicine, & Ethics. Summe2001, Vol. 29 Issue 2, p152, 14p.
United States Department of Energy. The Human Genome Project: Gene Patenting. www.ornl.gov/hgmis/elsi/patents.html