Professor Andrew Linzey, a research fellow at Mansfield College, Oxford, warned that 'we have reached moral rock bottom' as a result of the decision by the European Patent Office (EPO) last May to grant a provisional patent for the 'Harvard Oncomouse' - a creature whose DNA has been altered by genetic engineering in the laboratory so that it will contract cancer. The statutory period for objections to the patent expires this month.
If the patent is ultimately successful, Professor Linzey warns, 'it will mark the lowest status granted to animals in the history of European ethics'.
In 1985, Harvard University applied for the patent to cover genetic engineering techniques developed by its scientists to graft cancer-causing genes into the DNA of mice embryos. The resultant mice have an inborn propensity to develop cancer. A patent has already been granted in the USA, and the American company DuPont has taken out a licence for the technology.
Professor Linzey said: 'We are caught in a humanistic cul-de-sac, in which the limits imposed by God are gone. The world is not ours to master and control; there are moral limits to what we can do with created nature. Our status is that of creatures, not creators.'
To grant a patent would be to treat animals as inventions made by human beings and Professor Linzey said Christian teaching specifically ruled out 'the notion that humans have the power to define (to 'name' in the Biblical sense) other creatures'.
The view that all nature was here for humanity to treat as it wished was a Hellenistic, rather than Christian, position.
A spokesman for the British Chartered Institute of Patent Agents, Dr Jonathan Davies, said that if the public wished to object to research on moral grounds then they can do so, 'but the patent system is not the way to do it'.
Article 53 of the European Patent Convention does prohibit the patenting of inventions whose exploitation would be contrary to morality or public order, Dr Davies said, but the patenting of new living organisms does not raise any new ethical or moral questions.
He pointed out that a patent merely conferred on an inventor a temporary monopoly on exploiting the invention. If the patent were denied, 'it would not stop DuPont from making and selling these mice - it would allow anyone else to sell them as well'.