By Winifride Prestwich
The Interim

National Post article, “Patent office challenged over human cloning” (Feb. 22, 2000), mentions a United States Supreme Court ruling almost twenty years ago which gave “the green light” to patents on “living things.” The article refers to the Court’s ruling in Diamond vs. Chakrabarty, June 16, 1980. Briefly stated, these are the facts.

(1) Amanda Chakrabarty, a microbiologist at the University of Illinois Medical Centre, applied for a patent for a strain of bacteria which she had developed through genetic cross-breeding.

(2) Sidney Diamond, the U.S. Commissioner of Patents and Trademarks, refused to grant a patent, on the grounds that, under U.S. Patent Law, “living things” were not patentable.

(3) Chakrabarty refused to accept this ruling and eventually the case reached the U.S. Supreme Court. There, according to many constitutional lawyers, the Court “managed to stretch” the patent law to allow a patent to Chakrabarty’s strain of genetic cross-bred bacteria. Thus, despite the fact that bacteria are “living things,” the Court granted to their developer a right to a patent. As one constitutional lawyer said, “The Court acted ‘without a hint of moral consideration.'”

A U.S. Supreme Court ruling on the right to patent a new strain of bacteria was of little or no interest to the general public in 1980. Few people knew of the ruling, and even fewer understood it. A minuscule number saw the potential dangers to human life; and one of these was Jeremy Rifkin, the Director of the People’s Business Commission in Washington D.C. Rifkin predicted that, “In 10 or 20 years, Diamond will be looked upon as one of the biggest decisions a court has ever made.” He added that holders of a patent on gene-splitting techniques “would be able to play God.” (James Podgers, “Patent Decision Fuels Genetic Research Debate” American Bar Association Journal 1980)

Let me add a personal comment. Despite the fact that during the 1980s I had attended many national and international conferences, and that I was in close touch with the pro-life leaders in Britain and Australia, I had never heard, or read, one word about the Diamonddecision until 1989. My source of information was the Second American Revolution by John W. Whitehead. Mr. Whitehead is a well-known attorney and an expert in constitutional law. He called the Diamond decision “the application of cold, steely, sociological law. There is no concern for values or ethics.”

One paragraph of Whitehead’s book points to other potential dangers to human life.

“A disturbing aspect of Diamond is that the Supreme Court, without question, gave the future of genetic engineering to industry and business concerns. The giant technological corporations will be controlling the destiny of genetics in terms of the real world of economics.” A short editorial, “Genome for all” (National Post, March 16, 2000) shows that we are rushing, like lemmings, towards the edge of the cliff.

The editorial is about the genome, the DNA map of 100,000 genes. Apparently one private company, the Celera Genomics Corp., has applied for patents on more than 6,000 genes, and has plans to operate a genome data base for profit. In 1980, Rifkin said that patentability of living organisms would lead to control of the world’s gene pool by industry. We may well ask, “How did we reach this threat to the future of mankind?

Things man should never do

Aldous Huxley’s classic Brave New World was published in 1936. It described the imaginary Central London Hatchery and Conditioning Centre where human beings were “manufactured.” Huxley gave details of the processes: the weekly delivery of human ova and sperms; the “modern fertilizing” unit; incubation; “babies developing in bottles.” That was science fiction when I read the book about 1938. Today the reality of experimentation on human beings – tiny human embryos – is too close for comfort.

The birth of the first IVF baby, Louise Joy Brown in Oldham, England (my own birthplace), in 1978 was welcome news for infertile couples who desperately wanted children.

Within a few years – as few as two or three – the news of the types of experiments now made possible produced a change of heart and opinion. Rumours of the slicing of human embryos, freezing embryos in liquid nitrogen, placing human embryos in rabbits, pigs and sheep, interfertilization of humans and animals, womb leasing, attempts to clone human beings, etc. sickened most people, but not all. In a speech to the U.S. Congress Ethics Board, Dr. Roger Short of Edinburgh expressed his interest in the fertilization of human ova with sperm from gorillas, chimpanzees, and orangutans. He added that while “it would be abhorrent to many … only the fact of public reaction … had so far restrained scientists from attempting such experiments.”

In Australia, Senator Harradine sponsored a bill to stop embryo experimentation – in his words, “to prevent the creation of a race of laboratory human beings – second class and disposable.” In a press release, Senator Harradine reported that a Dr. Ian Johnston, who pioneered the “slicing” of human embryos in Australia, was “alarmed” by the bill. The senator said Dr. Johnston had been experimenting in that field as early as 1981, and that he had a $100,000 grant from the National Health and Research Council.

The third example of an enemy of pre-born children is Dr. Richard Seed, a “fertility researcher” and a major donor to U.S. IVF research. He wrote that people should “forget this business about what’s legal, immoral, and stop and think. We should surge ahead and do it, and forget about the moral minority that wants to live in the fifth century. Project the next 500 years and you’re going to live in a paradise. The greatest menace to progress is rigid thinking.” (Melbourne Age, March 3 1987)

Legal status of IVF embryo

By the years 1981-86 the general public became aware of the types of experimentation on human embryos, and they were shocked. They questioned why the law was allowing human beings created in-vitro to be killed, and learned that embryos fertilized outside the womb of the mother (or a surrogate) were not protected. The short answer was that there was no law on the books to protect an IVF embryo before it was transferred to the womb of the mother. Science had outrun the law.

In the late 1800s, statutory laws had replaced the common law about abortion, but no one at that time had envisaged a human being that was conceived in a petri dish, outside the mother’s body. At that time it was science fiction. Now, there was a new group of humans, who were entirely unprotected, unless and until they were transferred to the mother. There was no statutory law to prevent scientists and medical men and women giving women drugs for super ovulation in order to create large numbers of human embryos specifically for experimentation. In the words of the great English pro-lifer, Dr. Margaret White (who many Canadians will remember from the Ottawa Conference) “…the population of this country wants the human embryo to be protected and not reduced to the level of a vivisector’s guinea pig.” (“Public Opinion and Test Tube Babies,” Order of Christian Unity, 1986)

Others pleaded early for laws to protect human embryos. The Australian Reform Law Commission Chairman, Mr. Justice Michael Kirby, asked in 1981: “Should we tolerate such a legal silence, allowing scientists and technologists to take our society where they will, with no opportunity for us as a nation – or indeed as a species – to consider the implications?” Later he added: “Let it not be the epitaph of our generation that we proved ourselves brilliant in a dazzling field of scientific endeavour, but so morally bankrupt, and legally incompetent, that we just could not bother, or did not have the courage to sort out the consequences for our society and the human species.”

On the other side of the world, and three years later, Lord Denning, speaking in the House of Lords, said: “Medical scientists and medical men can do as they like with what I believe are human beings. There is no regulation at all. Buy or sell, freeze and the like, medical men do as they like without any control. These are dangers to our society.” (Tablet, Nov. 10, 1984)

Monash team in the U.S.

By 1981 the public in Australia had begun to push the various state governments to institute legislation to protect human embryos, and (seeing the writing on the wall) the Monash group decided to try the United States. The Epworth-Monash unit was owned by a profit-making corporation, the Fertility Medical Centre Pty Ltd. In 1986 they were ready to establish IVF Australia Ltd., and its wholly owned IVF Australia (U.S.A.). Both groups were registered in the state of Delaware; both groups had the same chairman, Bob Moses. With his associates, Bob Moses raised $4.5 million (US). In return the new groups had first option to world rights and to market Monash University technology.

Six years later IVF America was ready to go public. They offered 42 per cent of the shares for between $15 million and $18.75 million. (The Globe and Mail article of June 3, 1992 begins, “Think of it as Brave New World meets Wall Street).

Patenting genes

Babies are still killed in utero; the handicapped and the elderly are still being pushed into eternity by euthanasia advocates; the “pleasantly senile” are “disposable” still, but today’s talk is of the genome and patenting genes. The National Post had an article, “Patenting genes is bad medicine,” by Chander Buer, (March 21, 2000).

One of the most interesting parts of the article was the part played by U.S. President Bill Clinton and British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The two leaders issued a statement on “owning human genes,” in which they claimed that gene data “should be made freely available to scientists everywhere.” This caused a flurry of activity on the stock market, and within hours and amid conflicting explanations, the three major genomics companies watched their stocks plunge by the minute.

During the last century medicine has made great strides, worldwide, in preventing, curing, and eradicating disease. The list of doctors is very long, but it is good to remember some from outside of Britain and North America: Dr. Hansen of Norway, for the causes of leprosy (Hansen’s disease); Sir William Liley of New Zealand, for his pioneering work in the field of fetology; and Dr. Jerome Lejeune of France, for his work in genetics, and for his discovery of the chromosomal abnormality which causes Down syndrome.

All of these held two basic principles of medical research: (1) First, do no harm; and (2) Share your knowledge freely for the benefit of mankind. In general researchers hold fast to these principles. Researchers in IVF and Genome follow other rules. The harm they do is clearly evident. Their desire to patent, control, and make their fortunes, is not hidden; it is blatantly on show.

Professor Paul Ramsey said that there are “things that man should never do.” Men are doing them and getting wealthy.