Prohibition on Patenting Humans Attached to Senate Bill

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Nov 17, 2003   |   9:00AM   |   WASHINGTON, DC

Prohibition on Patenting Humans Attached to Senate Bill

by Steven Ertelt Editor
November 17, 2003

Washington, DC ( — Pro-life Senator Sam Brownback (R-KS) on Friday attached a provision to an appropriations bill that would turn a Patent Office policy of prohibiting patents for human beings into federal law.

The language is the same as legislation that has previously been approved by the House of Representatives.

Since 1987, the U.S. Patent Office has prevented anyone from obtaining patents on humans, including human embryos. Yet, an attempt by pro-life members of Congress to put that policy into law is drawing fierce opposition from the biotech industry.

As human cloning and embryonic stem cell research become more prevalent, biotechnology firms are increasingly interested in obtaining patents on human beings to protect duplication of their work and make money.

Pro-life Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL) put forward language to prevent human patents that the House of Representatives approved in July.

Though they claim to support the current Patent Office policy, biotech firms opposed Weldon’s amendment saying it would curb a host of biotech advances that don’t involve patenting human beings.

Weldon says the claim is absurd and that his amendment is almost identical to the Patent Office policy, which allows patenting of animal cloning, but not human cloning.

"The biotech industry has disseminated these imaginative and expansive claims about the Weldon amendment," said Douglas Johnson, legislative director of the National Right to Life Committee. "I think this puts the spotlight on the real issue: The biotechnology industry is lobbying to keep the legal door open for patenting cloned or genetically modified human embryos to ensure the payment of royalties for each embryo created or sold under license. All of that is essential for making human embryo farms and fetus farms profitable."

Brownback’s provision seeks to clarify the Weldon language and ward off attacks from biotech firms.

His amendment reads in part: "Nothing in this section shall be construed to affect claims directed to or encompassing cells, tissues, organs, or other bodily components that are not themselves human organisms (including, but not limited to stem cells, stem cell lines, genes, and living or synthetic organs)."

If Brownback’s language is contained in the final bill sent to President Bush, the human patent prohibition will become law, a victory for the pro-life community.

However, the biotech industry may oppose the bill because of the Brownback language.

"We would object to changes in patent law done through the appropriations process," said Michael J. Werner, vice president for bioethics at BIO, told the Washington Post.

Werner said biotech firms don’t want to patent human beings, but he declined to specify whether he countered days-old human embryos as human beings.

"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," Lori B. Andrews, a law professor at Chicago-Kent College of Law, wrote recently in an editorial that appeared in the Chicago Tribune.

Johnson said the biotech industry wants to engage in eugenics by creating embryos that have certain genetic traits that causes diseases such as cancer. Then, researchers can test vaccines on the embryos.

"The biotechnology industry wishes to patent human embryos and collect fees for each copy sold," NRLC’s Johnson added.

Pro-life groups also argue that the patenting of human beings would violate the 13th Amendment prohibiting slavery.