Congressional Bill Would Ban Scientific Patents on Human Beings

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Jun 14, 2011   |   4:39PM   |   Washington, DC

With scientists pushing the envelope in the world of embryonic stem cell research and human cloning further and further, there is a concern that scientists could apply for patents on human beings for research.

However, language in HR 1249, the America Invents Act, a bill pending in the House of Representatives, will codify an important pro-life policy rider included in the federal appropriations bills since 2004. This amendment, commonly known as the Weldon amendment, ensures the U.S. Patent and Trade Office can’t issue patents covering unique human beings, including human embryos.

Rep. Dave Weldon (R-FL), a pro-life doctor, was behind the original language that pro-life groups supported, saying a patent is a government-conferred property right and human beings shouldn’t be considered “property.” The provision would ban patents for genetically engineered human embryos or human beings but would not prohibit patents on tissues, cells or other biological products that are not actual humans.

“Notwithstanding any other provision of law, no patent may issue on a claim directed to or encompassing a human organism,” the language says. The ban “shall apply to any application for patent that is pending on, or filed on or after, the date of enactment.”

Making this policy permanent is an important pro-life action that will ensure that the Weldon amendment does not have to be considered and reapproved every year, one Congressional pro-life source informed today. However, inclusion of the Weldon amendment is even more essential for pro-life advocates because H.R. 1249 removes USPTO funding out of the annual appropriations process (fee diversion). Therefore, if the Weldon amendment is not codified in H.R. 1249, the amendment would no longer apply to the USPTO. As a result, the fee diversion component in H.R. 1249 would nullify the Weldon amendment.

When the Weldon language was first approved, the biotech industry opposed the provision.

“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, at the time.

Also at that time, Weldon said biotech firms have been fighting his measure “tooth and nail.” However, he said pro-life lawmakers reached an agreement with members of the Senate to make it clear that the patent ban wouldn’t apply to other kinds of research.