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Debating a patent on life itself

THE SYNOD decided to reserve judgement on the implications of the patenting of the human genome until next year. In the meantime, it has commissioned a report.

The ethics surrounding the human genome was a conversation in which the Church had a great deal to say, said Canon John Ashe, opening the debate on a Guildford diocesan-synod motion on Wednesday afternoon last week. Yet the Church had, to a large extent, stood on the sidelines while the race had been going on for the culture of the new science, "and for the enormous wealth and power the winners will amass".

A serious issue was to do with the patenting of DNA. Many would respond that this was not possible. Gene sequences were discovered, not invented. But some fancy legal footwork was going on, he said.

The pharmaceutical industry wanted to maintain the status quo: it was argued that intellectual property rights must be maintained, if companies were to see a return on their research investment.

The patent system normally allowed others to build on what had been learned. But this was not the case with the patenting of gene sequences. "Any genuine new therapeutic process will have to pay out licence fees to the person claiming ownership of the particular gene involved."

The Nuffield Council on Bioethics had recommended that patents should be restricted to the new medicines obtained from gene sequences. Some patents had been withdrawn, as in the case of breast-cancer genes, but the cost of such challenges in court ultimately raised the cost of new drugs.

The Guildford diocese wanted the Synod to take a stand against property rights over what was a naturally occurring material.

There was also deep concern about "genome farming" — that is, extracting highly valuable genetic information from indigenous communities which showed significantly smaller variations in DNA, and thus making it easier to identify tiny variations that gave rise to genetic diseases.

There were also dangers of creating a genetic underclass, and that genetic diagnoses could also be used on foetuses to make decisions about an abortion.

The Archdeacon of Coventry, the Revd Mark Bratton wondered whether human-genome research had the necessary qualities and novelty and direct utility that were necessary to patent it. There was a case for balancing control of genetic data with the need for incentives for researchers. The Church was challenged to elaborate a distinctive Christian understanding of the public interest rather than do what it had done so far, which was to react in a case-by-case fashion.

Canon Professor Oliver O’Donovan (Universities) called for the Church to draw together the legal, economic, theological, and philosophical expertise needed to be able to make a studied reponse.

Dr Philip Giddings (Oxford) moved a successful amendment that sought more reflection in all aspects of this very complex subject, and was supported by Dr Anna Thomas-Betts (Oxford).

The Revd Duncan Dormor (Universities) said that this area of genetic science was being addressed in an intensely commercial climate. He welcomed the spirit of the motion, but also supported the amendment.

Resuming debate on the amended motion, Dr Jamie Harrison (Durham) wanted to flush out why wider public debate was needed. Baroness Kennedy had recently raised concern about the screening of embryos. Each one of us had value, Baroness Kennedy had said, and Synod should say "amen" to that.

The amended notion, carried overwhelmingly, read:

That this Synod, in the light of the deep concerns expressed in this debate, ask the Mission and Public Affairs Council to explore the theological, ethical and legal implications of patenting of the human genome and bring a report to this Synod by February 2007.

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