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
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been withdrawn, as in the case of breast-cancer genes, but the cost of such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
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.