Congress Approves Bill Banning Patenting of Human Embryos

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Sep 15, 2011   |   1:52PM   |   Washington, DC

Congress has given final approval to legislation that contains a pro-life provision ensuring the federal government can’t issue patents covering unique human beings, including human embryos.

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. But, language added to HR 1249, the America Invents Act, which received a final vote today, 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 allowing companies or individuals to patent a human being.

Tomorrow, President Obama will sign the legislation into law, though the administration has not issued a comment on the Weldon provision.

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.”

The Family Research Council praised the passage of the “Weldon Patent Ban” as part of the “America Invents Act” to prevent patenting of human embryos. The issue of placing the language in the legislation was first brought to Congress’ attention by the pro-life group, which takes no position on the bill in full but praises codifying into law a major pro-life provision, also known as a “rider.”

Family Research Council president Tony Perkins told LifeNews: “Passage of the ban on patenting human organisms as part of patent reform is a huge victory for the idea that all human lives, even those of the youngest among us, are valuable and should not be viewed as property. The Patent Office had a policy of rejecting patents on human embryos, and in previous years the Weldon language helped give legal weight to that policy while some scientists wanted to gain a property right on genetically altered humans.”

“I applaud Chairman Lamar Smith, Rep. Chris Smith and House leadership, especially Majority Leader Eric Cantor, for making sure that the Weldon language was part of the patent reform legislation approved by the U.S. Senate,” he said.

“While biotechnology offers great hope for treatments and science should be explored, it must always be in the service of humanity, not the other way around. We must never lose sight of the fact that all human life, including human embryos, deserves legal protection,” Perkins added. “Preventing the patenting of human embryos places America in line with the European Union and other great technologically advanced societies that also realize human life at all stages has inherent dignity. This is a great day for life and a great day for humanity.”

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.