House Votes to Ban Patenting of Humans to Avoid New “Slavery”

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A little-noticed House of Representatives vote yesterday on patent law may prove to be a profound victory for the fight for the Culture of Life in the United States.

December 9, 2003
Volume 1, Number 18

A little-noticed House of Representatives vote yesterday on patent law may prove to be a profound victory for the fight for the Culture of Life in the United States.

In a 242 to 176 vote, the U.S. House of Representatives passed  H.R. 2799, the Federal Year 2004 Commerce-Justice-State appropriations bill. Imbedded within the 1000-page bill is an amendment introduced by Dave Weldon (R-Fl) banning any governmental right to process and issue patents of “human organisms” such as human embryos (including those created in vitro) and cloned humans.

The amendment, added to the bill in July of this year, consists of a brief statement that “None of the funds appropriated or otherwise made available by this act may be used to issue patents on claims directed to or encompassing a human organism.”

Advocates of the ban on the patenting of humans argue that such patents would violate the 13th amendment of the Constitution, which prohibits “slavery or involuntary servitude,” since the patented humans would be legally owned by others. In fact, the US Patent Office (USPTO) has advanced this argument at least since 1987, when it decided that “a claim directed to or including within its scope a human being will not be considered patentable subject matter.[since] the grant of a limited, but exclusive property right in a human being is prohibited by the Constitution.”

In addition, the proponents of the ban contend that human life would be transformed into a commodity to be commercialized if such patents were issued. As Lori Andrews, director of the Institute for Science, Law and Technology at the Illinois Institute of Technology stated in a recent Chicago Tribune opinion piece, “This obscure question of patent law will have a profound impact on the type of society our children will grow up in. If patents on human embryos are allowed, then biotech companies will market babies with certain traits just like Perdue markets chicken or Ford markets sport-utility vehicles.”

The biotech industry, represented by BIO, the Biotechnology Industry Organization, contends that the amendment goes much further than the 1987 US Patent Office decision, and that it will stop potentially live-saving medical research. Bio argues that if such a ban were passed, it would prevent patents on cell lines, genes, living organs, and stem cells, which “sets a dangerous precedent and stifles research.”

However, Weldon argues that BIO opposes all regulations, including the USPTO regulation. According to Weldon, “My amendment has exactly the same scope as the current USPTO policy, and cannot be charged with the radical expansions of policy that BIO and its allies claim. In reality, BIO opposes this amendment because it opposes the current USPTO policy as well, and has a better chance of nullifying this policy in court (or having courts reinterpret it into uselessness) if it lacks explicit support in statutory law. This goal is apparent from BIO’s own ‘fact sheet’ opposing the amendment. There BIO argues that human beings should be patentable, if they arise from anything other than ‘conventional reproduction’. In other words, humans should be seen as ‘inventions’ and thus be patentable on exactly the same grounds as animals are now.”

Andrews thinks BIO is driven by considerations of hefty potential profits. “What, then, is BIO’s real agenda? Perhaps where others of us see smiling babies, BIO sees dollar signs. With more than 4 million births a year in the United States, the market for genetically enhanced embryos might be as lucrative as that for Prozac or Viagra.”

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