Genetic engineering has enabled scientists to turn some barnyard animals,
such as cows and sheep, into miniature chemical factories, producing
valuable human proteins in their milk. Some ethical objections have been
raised to the insertion of human genes into animals, both by the animal
welfare movement as well as by human ethicists and religious leaders.
Amazingly enough, on February 10th 1988, a European patent application was
filed by Baylor University of Texas which would include the genetic
alteration of a human female so that she could be similarly used as a drug
factory, facetiously labeled by European activists as the “pharm-woman.”
The British attorney who represented Baylor said that the application was
specifically drafted broadly because “Someone, somewhere may decide that
humans are patentable” and therefore he wanted to make sure that they had
monopoly rights to the production of important pharmaceuticals in human
female breasts.

As the Guaymi situation indicates, human communities do have small, and
sometimes significant, variations among the estimated 100,000 genes in our
body cells. For example, it is well known that the residents of the
village of Limone, in the Italian Alps, have significantly lower incidence
of heart disease than villagers in adjacent valleys. Inbreeding of
relatively isolated biological populations (plant, or animal, or human) can
produce and maintain such variations. On this basis, US scientists are
seeking funding for a grandiose scheme called the Human Genome Diversity
Project which would sample approximately 10-15,000 human beings living in
722 indigenous or isolated communities. At an overall cost of
approximately $35 million, the project will spend more money gathering each
individual blood sample than the per capita GNP in any of the world’s
poorest 110 countries! Although the scientists claim to be driven by
purely intellectual curiosity, it’s clear that if substances like the
Limone heart disease preventative were isolated the pressures to make them
commercially available to other persons would be intense. Presumably the
patenting and marketing of such portions of the human genome would be
inevitable, no matter what the current scientists, naively or
disingenuously, state. This proposal has elicited much opposition from
indigenous peoples and their supporters in developed countries. Scientists
in the HGDP are anxious to start collecting these “Isolates of Historic
Interests,” because “They represent groups that should be sampled before
they disappear as integral units so that their role in human history can be

To put this project in perspective, note that our First World society does
not provide indigenous communities with even the rudiments of public
sanitation, preventative medicine, or curative treatments (allowing
preventable diseases such as cholera and polio to be endemic) but we are
going to ask these communities to give us something which may be beneficial
for our health care. After having dominated most of the mineral and
vegetative resources of indigenous peoples, we are now talking about
turning on their very bodies as the ultimate resource to exploit.

Indigenous peoples around the world have been united in their condemnation
of the HGDP. Tadodaho, Chief Leon Shenandoah, of the Council of Chiefs of
the Onondaga nation, wrote the National Science Foundation, “Your process
is unethical, invasive and may even be criminal. It violates the group
rights and human rights of our peoples and indigenous peoples around the
world. Your project involves the very genetic structures of our beings.”
Planning for the Human Genome Diversity Project is still going forward
despite such opposition.

Another attempt to extend the notion of a patent monopoly is the
application for patents on specific human genes and on human gene fragments
whose function is not even known. This situation, going well beyond the
facts in the Moore case, is sufficiently controversial even among
scientists that the primary applicant (a researcher National Institutes of
Health) was forced to leave the government; he is now continuing these
patenting efforts under corporate auspices. Scientists in the
International Human Genome Organization, however, have recently issued a
statement supporting the patenting of human DNA. They only oppose the
patenting of partial genes or where the biological function of the gene
sequence is unknown.

The old injustices of colonialism persist in much of the present reality;
according to a Dutch member of the European Parliament from the Green Party
“Ninety percent of the genetic resources which are used in our agricultural
production come from the Third World. We have never asked if we ought to
pay anything for them. And now for the biotechnology industry to demand
monopoly property rights over them is utterly unjustifiable. Whether wild
species or crop plants, genetic resources are the common heritage of
humankind. All farmers must be guaranteed free access to them.”

Strong responses to such arrogance and insensitivity are beginning to be
evident. On March 1st of this year, the European Parliament voted to ban
the patenting of life forms. On Gandhi’s birthday in October of 1993, one
half million Indian farmers demonstrated at the offices of muti-national
giant Cargill, protesting the patenting of seeds which had been used in
their communities for thousands of years and objecting to the agricultural
and intellectual property provisions of the GATT. And a recent meeting of
indigenous peoples in Fiji called for establishing a Life Forms Patent-Free
zone in the Pacific covering bioprospecting and human genetic research; a
treaty to achieve these ends is currently being drafted.

What are your thoughts on genetics and patent law? Should corporations be allowed to hold exclusive rights to DNA? Let us know what you think. If you have a Web browser that can read newsgroups, you can take part in FEED’s online discussions. Just click on the Feedbag icon below and start posting!