Letter: Dangers of patenting God's creation

Sir: The "Life Patent Directive" due to appear before the European Parliament on 15-17 July, if passed as it stands, would give industry explicit rights to life patency and therefore the right to monopolise the commercial exploitation of life forms.

The directive contains disturbing ethical, social, environmental and political issues which have not yet been fully explored, and as such pose a matter of great concern and urgency. The first draft was rejected by the European Parliament in March 1995. Now the new but almost identical directive is being presented to the European Parliament - against the advice of scientists, doctors, clinical geneticists, religious organisations and the public - and demonstrates a clear bias towards biotech companies.

A key issue raised by the Life Patent Directive is its extension of the current patent system to include living organisms (including animals, plants and human parts). The ethical objection to a company holding patent rights over living material they have neither created nor invented is clearly of primary concern to religious communities. The General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, which recently voted against patency, urges that: "living organisms and genetic material of human origin are in themselves unpatentable as parts of God's creation".

If this directive were passed, merely extracting and describing a gene would entitle a company to A patent, allowing them not only a monopoly control over the procedure but also over the genes themselves, thus crediting them with all future unforeseen developments and applications of that basic discovery. This monopoly, granted to individual companies, could lead to increased patient expenses for treatment and to a financially exclusive service.

It might also channel this service into commercial interests, neglecting research in unprofitable areas which are currently pursued for the public interest. This would not only reduce the availability of treatment, but could also hinder scientific advancements by restricting communication and co-operation between companies with a common goal.

In the light of these issues, we wish to urge that the British members of the European Parliament consider rejecting this directive and encouraging instead a fuller discussion of the issues concerned prior to any further attempts at such legislation.

KEITH PATRICK O'BRIEN

Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh

Dr JONATHAN SACKS

Chief Rabbi of the United Synagogue

The Rt Rev RICHARD HARRIES

Bishop of Oxford, Chairman of the Board of Social Responsibility of the Church of England

The Rt Rev DAVID N de L YOUNG

Bishop of Ripon

The Rt Rev JOHN OLIVER

Bishop of Hereford

Rabbi TONY BAYFIELD

Chief Executive, the Reform Synagogues of Great Britain

Bishop HUGH MONTEFIORE

Bishop PHILIP GOODRICH

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