1999, pp 129-137

The Ethics of Gene Patenting

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Abstract

Is it ethical to patent human genes and gene sequences? Like many questions about what is ethically permissible or impermissible, this query has layers of complexity. These include fundamental questions about what should and should not be patentable from an ethical perspective, as well as what is or is not patentable under existing patent laws. A second layer of legal questions asks whether existing patent laws are adequate to address the somewhat unique ethical concerns raised by patenting human genes. A related inquiry looks into differences in these laws in different countries. Even if current patent laws can be interpreted to allow gene patenting (Looney, 1994, pp. 231–272, Resnik, 1997, pp. 43–61) we can always pose an ethical challenge to an existing law. The United States and European countries have so far taken divergent approaches to gene patenting. The biotechnology industry in the U.S. is aggressively seeking patents for its “discoveries” or “inventions” whereas countries in the European Union have steadfastly resisted the patenting of human genes (Looney, 1994). The European Parliament has voted several times against gene patenting in the past few years.