Magazine article The Christian Century

Gene-Patenting Dispute Flares

Magazine article The Christian Century

Gene-Patenting Dispute Flares

Article excerpt

A WASHINGTON-BASED group that opposes gene patenting launched a nationwide protest September 27 against corporations and scientists involved in what it says is a "morally indefensible" industry. At the same time a California-based think tank that studies theology and science has asked religious leaders not to take sides on the issue but to "focus their energies on more pressing issues of social justice" and to let others "fight out" the patenting controversy.

The Foundation on Economic Trends, led by longtime social-policy activist Jeremy Rifkin, kicked off a drive to organize grass-roots opposition to gene patenting at news conferences and demonstrations near the New York Stock Exchange and the Chicago Board of Trade. "The rich genetic resources of the Earth's biological commons should be shared openly and fairly and not become the exclusive intellectual property of transnational corporations," Rifkin declared.

The group's efforts have drawn criticism, notably from theologians and ethicists who work on relations between religion and science. "DNA-as important as it is for defining each of us as an individual human being--is not sacred," Ted Peters, a Pacific Lutheran Seminary theology professor and head of the Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, contended in a statement released in advance of Rifkin's action. "There is no theological warrant for a `hands off DNA' policy any more than there would be against getting a haircut or an appendectomy." The CTNS, specializing in research on the ethical dimensions of scientific research, is associated with the Graduate Theological Union, an independent, interfaith consortium of Bay Area seminaries and religion schools based at the University of California at Berkeley.

Rifkin, whose career as an activist goes back to the civil rights and anti war era, has built moral and religious concerns into his causes and garnered religious support for his anti-gene-patenting effort. Last spring, in a move that Rifkin orchestrated, 186 Roman Catholic, Protestant, Jewish, Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim leaders issued a statement expressing concern over the patenting of life forms created through genetic research.

The gene controversy has been brewing since 1987, when the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office announced that any genetically altered animal, human gene, cell or organ could be patented. The ruling allows research universities and biotech firms to own and profit from the altered genetic material for the 17 years of the patent. Genes are biological matter that contain the DNA codes determining an organism's characteristics. Genetic engineering, including research that would alter those codes or recast them into new forms, is a growing scientific field. …

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