Letter: Oncomouse: power of a patent, Christian perspective, the 'green rat'

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The Independent Online
Sir: I was intrigued that Tom Wilkie ('This mouse should roar' 18 January) sought to ground his concern at the European patent application for the Oncomouse in an absolute moral value, to which religious sanction was appealed. He bemoans the lack of church discussion of the issue.

The Society, Religion and Technology Project of the Church of Scotland has, since 1970, been addressing the ethical implications of current and emerging technologies and has this month embarked on a major study of the many complex ethical questions associated with genetic engineering in animals, plants and micro- organisms.

It seems bizarre to speak of a living organism like a mouse as an invention. 'Invention' requires significant human intervention in the discovery. There is vastly more involved in the animal than the small bit of 'engineering' humans have done. Should we be patenting not the animal but only the laboratory process involved in producing it?

The more worrying implication from a Christian perspective is that a patent on an animal could be seen to reduce it in concept to nothing more than a machine for unregulated human use, with no thought for its intrinsic worth, as an animal of which God is still ultimately the creator, whether we have tinkered with it a little on the way or not.

But the issues are more complex. On one hand, how is a company, having sunk millions into research, to protect the product of its investment? On the other, having so invested, it cannot claim a divine right of shareholders over ethical criteria.

This raises deeper issues of how far the profit motive should be the main driving force behind this sort of research. Perhaps we need to consider our ethics before embarking on the research, instead of, as technology has so often done, the other way round.

Yours sincerely,

DONALD M. BRUCE

Director

Society, Religion and

Technology Project

Edinburgh

20 January

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