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Spring 2000

Patent Pending
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As the technological revolution that has so reshaped the world around us turns inward on ourselves, the issue of whether we can license the very essence of life itself is taking center stage.

by Gregory Stock

In this age of supercharged scientific discovery, as researchers around the world rush to unlock the secrets of our very being, the debate about patenting human genes and other aspects of our biology has been passionate. Over time, the nature of that debate has shifted from one about whether such patenting should be allowed at all to whether specific kinds of patents will help or hinder the advance of medical science.

Some critics, of course, still cling to the idea that patenting any aspect of human biology is abhorrent. Social activist Jeremy Rifkin has even likened it to slavery. But most knowledgeable observers today are more perplexed than threatened by such extreme views. They either shake their heads at the naiveté of those who imagine that today's revolution in molecular biology could have occurred without patenting, or try to explain that a patent doesn't give anyone the right to make another human do anything; a patent simply confers a 20-year right to keep others from commercially exploiting a product.

But medical science is an arena ripe with symbolism, so it is unlikely that even calls to completely ban gene patenting will disappear any time soon. After all, these are disconcerting times for many people: The technological forces that have hitherto so reshaped the world around us are swinging their focus back upon our own selves, and promising - some would say threatening - eventually to transform us.

That we are deciphering the blueprint of life and beginning to manipulate it will no doubt bring enormous benefit, but it will also extend our reach into the most intimate aspects of human life. The very existence of a debate about patenting "life" confirms that the lines between technology, biology and humanity are blurring as we ourselves become objects of conscious manipulation. Blocking gene patenting would have broad impacts, but it would hardly change the reality that we are beginning to redesign life, that we are modifying nature, that we are playing God. Gene patents have become just one more symbol in the struggle between those who embrace such change and those who resist it.

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