WASHNGTON, D.C. — This month the U.S. Supreme Court reversed a decision it made 33 years ago that genes could be patented — a decision the faith community has opposed because genes are a creation of God.
The U.S. Supreme Court set aside a ruling that had allowed a company to patent two genes linked to breast and ovarian cancer and limit access to potentially life-saving genetic tests for at-risk women.
Supreme Court set aside a ruling that had allowed a company to patent two genes linked to breast and ovarian cancer.
“Because the Court has struck down the two breast-cancer genes previously ‘owned’ by Myriad Genetics,” said Jaydee Hanson, policy director for Human Genetics at the International Center for Technology Assessment, “we hope that women with these genes can now be tested for less than the $3,500 Myriad has been charging for their tests.“
Not human inventions
Hanson was staff director for genetics work at the United Methodist General Board of Church & Society 18 years ago when nearly 200 religious leaders declared genes should not be patentable because they were creations of God, not human inventions.
200 religious leaders declared genes … were creations of God, not human inventions.
In 1980, though, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that genetic discoveries could be patented. This decision was widely hailed as placing its imprimatur on the fledgling biotechnology industry.
In 1995, the GBCS was a leader in an interfaith effort to overturn the U.S. government's 15-year policy of granting patents for human and animal genes.
In June 2013, the U.S. Supreme Court unanimously decided genes are not patentable under the U.S. Constitution.
It didn’t take long after that 1980 Supreme Court decision for the United Methodist Church to weigh in on the subject, however. In 1984, the General Conference, the denomination’s highest policy-setting body, declared genes to be a part of the common heritage of all peoples.
“The position taken by the church in 1984 is consistent with our understanding of the sanctity of God's creation and God's ownership of life,” General Conference said in its Book of Resolutions. “Therefore, exclusive ownership rights of genes as a means of making genetic technologies accessible raises serious theological concerns.”
While the denomination declared its opposition to patents on organisms themselves, it supported process patents, the method for engineering a new organism. It explained these provide a means of economic return on investment while avoiding exclusive ownership of the organism." ("New Developments in Genetic Science V," Book of Resolutions 2012.)
The denomination has reaffirmed that resolution, first adopted in 1992, whenever it came up for review at General Conference.
That interfaith statement signed by Protestant, evangelical Christian, Catholic, Jewish, Muslim, Hindu and Buddhist faith leaders was coordinated by GBCS. The first signers were Bishop Ken Carder, chair of the United Methodist Genetic Science Taskforce, and Bishop Mel Talbert, president of the denomination’s Council of Bishops.
Other signers included the head of the National Council of Churches, the Southern Baptist Church, the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, and the head of the Science Committee of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops.
“In 1995, the religious leaders were criticized as being ‘anti-science,’” Hanson recalled. “Today the U.S. Patent Office has been told by the Supreme Court that products of nature like DNA cannot be patented.”
The 2013 decision was based on past patent cases before the high court in which the justices ruled that forces of nature, as opposed to products of invention, are not patent-eligible.
Threat to biotech industry
In 1995 when the interfaith statement was released, The Wall Street Journal speculated that should the group's attack gain support it could pose a threat to this country's fast-growing biotech industry of about 1,300 companies.
Hanson emphasized that this is not an example of the Church being anti-science. "The reason for its existence is integrity of the faith, not public-policy advocacy," Hanson told the Journal. "I don't think Congress has known that what the patent office is doing is this offensive to this many religious leaders.”
The Journal reported that Hanson compared the patenting of genes to "blasphemy" because "it claims that someone else other than God created life."
The interfaith statement said, “We believe that humans and animals are creations of God, not humans, and as such should not be patented as inventions."
Hanson explained then that the interfaith group isn't against biotech drugs, just against reducing life to a “marketable commodity.”
Eighteen years later, the Supreme Court ruled on a case brought by The Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). The case challenged the patents held by Myriad Genetics on the BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, which a divided 2-1 Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit last year ruled were valid, although it ruled other challenged patents on methods of genetic diagnosis were invalid.
Nobody ‘invents’ genes, so no one should be able to claim ownership of them.
“Nobody ‘invents’ genes, so no one should be able to claim ownership of them,” said Daniel Ravicher, PUBPAT executive director. “We are not talking about a new drug or a new tool to fight cancer. We are talking about a genetic marker that occurs naturally in the human body. That cannot, and should not, be patented.”
Hanson pointed out that the Church was a leader in the fight for civil rights. “It is no accident that the American Civil Liberties Union brought the case to the Supreme Court,” he said. “Genetic rights are now a part of civil rights.”