In December of 1994, Seattle businessman John Moore traveled to Europe. He
went to Brussels to visit the European Parliament; he visited Munich and
took in the European patent office; and in Geneva, by the shores of the
lake, he spent several hours at the World Intellectual Property
Organization. These are not usual stops for a traveler’s itinerary, and
indeed, John Moore was not on vacation. He was in Europe because of what
happened to him in 1976 when UCLA doctors removed rare “hairy cell
leukemia” cells from his spleen and then developed a line of cells which
produced valuable antibacterial and cancer-fighting proteins.

Of course, Moore had signed a surgery consent form which included fairly
standard language allowing research to be done on his discarded tissues.
But after the doctors received a patent on the so-called “Mo cell line” in
1984, Moore sued, alleging at the very least he should receive a share of
the profits (potentially several billion dollars) on the grounds that-if
one wanted to view it in such a light-every individual has a property right
in their own body parts. In July of 1990 the California Supreme Court
denied the existence of such a right of control over our own bodies
(although it allowed John Moore to sue his doctors for a breech of
fiduciary duty in failing to inform him of the potential commercial value
of his cells).

John Moore, as the only human known to have been patented in whole or in
part, went to Europe last winter to lobby. The European Parliament was
considering whether or not to accept a Directive from the Executive branch
of that multi-nation political entity which would have allowed the
patenting of life forms, including human parts. And, in an historic vote,
on March the 1st of this year, the Parliament rejected such patentability
by 240 to 188.

Almost two years earlier, in August of 1993, Pat Mooney of the Rural
Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) had been examining a patent
database primarily for agricultural information when he came across an
application filed by the US Secretary of Commerce on the cell line of a
26-year old Guaymi Indian women from Panama. (A cell line is a group of
cells taken from a human body that are capable of being sustained and grown
in laboratory culture media, and are therefore said to be “immortal;” a
line of cells contains the complete genetic code, the genome, of the
individual from whom the cells were taken.) These cells were believed to
contain special anti-viral qualities.

Mooney immediately contacted the Guaymi — who, of course, had no idea
they were candidates for monopolization — and also alerted a group of
international activists who had gathered in Geneva that September under the
auspices of the US Biotechnology Working Group. The Guaymi demanded that
the US withdraw its patent claim and return the cell line to the tribe.
RAFI and other activist groups supported the Guaymi, including bringing
their President to Geneva to protest the patent claim at a number of
venues-the WIPO, an intergovernmental meeting of the parties to the
Biodiversity Convention, and at the secretariat of the GATT trade
organization. The European Greens spearheaded opposition in the European
Parliament, and in early November of that year, the US Government withdrew
its claims.

Guaymi President, Isidro Acosta, reflected, “I never imagined people would
patent plants and animals. 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.”

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