More MS news articles for June 2002

Brave New Patents

05/27/2002, Volume 007, Issue 36
by William Kristol

OVER THE PAST YEAR, the president, Congress, and the nation have been engaged in a serious public debate on human cloning. It has featured congressional hearings, industry lobbying, a House vote banning all human cloning, and months of delay and equivocation in the Senate.

In all this time, no one bothered to check with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. It now turns out that a patent was granted more than a year ago to researchers at the University of Missouri for mammal and human reproductive cloning--a discovery we owe to Andrew Kimbrell of the International Center for Technology Assessment, which has done heroic work making sense of this and other Brave New World patents.

The University of Missouri patent seems to include exclusive rights to the cloned embryos, cloned fetuses, and cloned children that their new process might one day create. Which is to say, it turns human life into a commodity--to be made, manipulated, exploited, and destroyed.

Surely much of the fault lies with the patent-holding researchers themselves. They could easily have included the word "nonhuman" before the word "mammal" in their patent application, in which they request patent ownership of the "living, cloned products produced by each of the methods described herein." But they did not limit themselves to animals. They wanted control over human clones, too.

Similar patent applications are pending. For example, a group of researchers from Massachusetts has applied for a patent that allows them "to use tissues derived from NT [i.e., cloned] embryos, fetuses or offspring, including human and ungulate tissues," and to own the patent rights to the "progeny of the [cloned] offspring."

In other words, they want to make human clones, harvest their organs, and own the rights to their children. They want to use some human beings as raw materials to help others.

Of course, those who seek such patents will tell us that this is not their intention. They will say their critics are crying wolf. They will say that it is only the 14-day-old cloned embryos that they want. And they will say that it is only to save your dying mother or dying child that they want them.

But are we really to trust as benefactors those who would so unapologetically request the legal right to turn their fellow men and women into property? Are we to stand by and watch--in naive disbelief or naive inaction--as the precedent for a new, inhuman commerce in human beings is established and normalized?

Stuart Newman, founder of the Council for Responsible Genetics, put it well in testimony before the Senate: "Once we have clonal embryos for a while and have gotten used to the idea, who would turn a deaf ear to calls by patients and their loved ones for these superior therapeutics?" Who would turn away from "improved products of this work, up to and including full-term clones from which to harvest organs"?

Indeed, in just the last year we have seen how quickly moral lines dissolve in the face of promised medical progress. We have seen how the need to use only embryos "left over" from in vitro fertilization (which are going to die anyway, advocates said) has become the need to create cloned embryos explicitly for research and destruction. And we can imagine how the need for cloned embryos will soon become the need for later-term cloned fetuses--something these patents anticipate and endorse.

Though the patent was not formally granted until April 3, 2001, the decision to grant it was made before President Bush was elected and before his choice, former congressman Jim Rogan, became director of the Patent Office. But the fact that no one in the Patent Office or the administration seemed to know such a patent existed--or that those who knew about it and approved it did not seem to understand or care about what they were doing--suggests how urgent legislative action on both human cloning and the patenting of human life really is.

And this leaves us with the third culprit in this case: the Senate leadership, which promised in February, then in March, then in April, then in May, promptly to consider legislation, proposed by senators Sam Brownback and Mary Landrieu, banning all human cloning, legislation which passed in the House by over 100 votes.

There are two other bills in the Senate that also claim to ban human cloning. The first is sponsored by senators Arlen Specter, Ted Kennedy, Dianne Feinstein, and Orrin Hatch, and it is a masterpiece of disingenuousness. It redefines human cloning as the implantation of a cloned embryo; it claims to establish regulations on the use of cloned embryos, when in fact it shields such research from future regulation; and it puts the government in the novel and unsavory position of endorsing the creation of cloned human embryos and then mandating their destruction. It might as well be called the "Human Embryo Cloning Promotion Act of 2002."

The second bill, sponsored by Senator Byron Dorgan, is equally bad. In an effort to avoid taking a position on the creation and use of cloned embryos, it ends up allowing the implantation of cloned embryos into human, animal, or artificial wombs, where they might be left to develop into later-stage fetuses, and then mined for tissue or organs.

Both of these bills would end up aiding the very thing they claim to ban: reproductive cloning. They would allow the technology of human cloning to develop; they would lead to the creation of large numbers of cloned embryos; and their claimed prohibition on reproductive cloning would be legally unenforceable--short of forced abortions--if one of these embryos were to be implanted.

In short, these bills do not really ban human cloning. They are not compromises. They are fictions.

This is a moment when all parties need to act decisively and responsibly. The Senate needs to pass a real ban on human cloning. Congress and the president need to develop and pass legislation making it illegal--or making clear that it is already illegal--to patent human embryos, human fetuses, or human beings. And the biotech industry needs to denounce the reckless excesses of some of its members, which so far it has instead labored and lobbied to defend.

At the press conference when senators Specter, Kennedy, Feinstein, and Hatch announced the release of their pro-research cloning legislation, Specter was asked when a cloned embryo could no longer be used morally for research. He replied: "I have not found it helpful to get into the details."

It is now time to consider the details and the facts. If we do not, we risk allowing the making of monsters, and we risk becoming monsters. And we risk being so deluded by the supposed goodness of our intentions that we do not realize the Brave New World we are making, until it is too late.

--William Kristol

© Copyright 2002, News Corporation