SOC/BIO: Rifkin on Human Genetic Engineering in the LA Times

Date: Sat Feb 05 2000 - 16:41:05 MST

I urge everyone on the list to read very closely Jeremy Rifkin's piece in the
LA Times that follows. As a professional rhetorician, I find it an
impeccably constructed polemic, craftily designed to gently tug at the most
powerful negative emotional reactions to human genetic engineering. This
piece wasn't just dashed off of Rifkin's word processor and he didn't write
it as an impulsive response to developments of the moment. It is a coldly
calculated step in a plan this man and his followers are carrying out to
block human genetic engineering.

If the geneticists who are doing the work that will save our lives don't get
down out of their ivory towers RIGHT NOW and take these people on in the
media, we're all going to be pretty damned disappointed.


>From The LA Times,
Thursday, February 3, 2000 | Print this story

Cloning: What Hath Genomics Wrought?
 Britain patents 'Dolly process' on animals. Early-stage human embryos are
'inventions' too.


     Occasionally, a great change in history comes about quickly and without
warning, transforming the very way we perceive ourselves and the world
around us for generations to come. Such was the case when the world first
heard about Dolly the cloned sheep. Now, Ian Wilmut, the Scottish scientist
who cloned Dolly, has made history a second time, and the new development is
likely to have an even greater impact on the world than the first.
     The British patent office has just granted Wilmut's Roslin Institute
patents on his cloning process and all animals cloned using the process. The
patents have been licensed to Geron Corp., a California-based biotech
company. There is something more, however. The patent also includes as
intellectual property--i.e., patented inventions--all cloned human embryos
up to the blastocyst stage, which is a cluster of about 140 cells. For the
first time, a national government has declared that a specific human being
created through the process of cloning is, at its earliest phase of
development, to be considered an invention in the eyes of the patent office.
The implications are profound and far-reaching.
     It was less than 135 years ago that the United States abolished
slavery, making it illegal for any human being to own another human being as
property after birth. Now the British patent office has opened the door to a
new era in which a developing human being can be owned, in the form of
intellectual property, in the gestational stages between conception and
     Regardless of where people may stand on the question of abortion, one
would think that everyone would be shocked at the idea that a company might
be able to own a human embryo as an invention.
     Parents, when they read about this extraordinary patent decision,
should ask themselves whether their children and future generations will be
well served ethically if they grow up in a world where they come to think of
embryonic human life as intellectual property, controlled by life science
companies. What happens to our children's most basic notions about the
distinctions between human life and inanimate objects when the former comes
to be regarded by law as mere inventions, simple utilities to be bartered
like so many commodities in the commercial arena?
     And, if cloned human embryos are, in fact, considered to be human
inventions, then what becomes of our notion of God, the creator? What will
future generations say when their children ask, where do babies come from?
Will they say they are the inventions of scientists and the property of life
science companies?
     Geron makes the point that it has no intention of cloning a
full-birthed human being, but only wants to use cloned human embryos as
research tools. Still, this breathtaking patent marks the first commercial
step into a brave new world of human reproductive technology and designer
babies, where gestational human life becomes subject to ownership and
commercial exploitation in ways that challenge our very notions of what it
means to be a human being. It is possible that in the not-too-distant future
parents will order up their children the way they buy other products, making
babies the ultimate shopping experience in a post-modern world.
     Geron and the life science companies would argue that without patents
they would not have the financial incentives to provide cures to deadly
diseases and improve human health. Yet the question arises: What is wrong
with an economic system in which advancing the human condition depends on
allowing a few commercial enterprises exclusive right to claim cloned human
embryos as their intellectual property?
     For several years, genomic companies have been engaged in a fierce
battle to locate, isolate, define and patent plant, animal and human genes,
the raw resources of the coming biotech century. Now, with the British
patent office making the first stages of human life a patented invention, a
new, even more ominous threshold has been crossed.
     Step by step, the groundwork is being laid for redefining the building
blocks of life--the genes, the chromosomes, the cells, the organs, the
tissues and now cloned human embryos--as private property, exploitable in
the biological market place. Where will this journey end?

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