Patenting the perfect pig: an issue for public debate

JOYCE KILMER achieved literary prominence with the assertion that ``only God can make a tree.'' The early 20th-century poet probably couldn't find a rhyme for a cow, a horse, or a pig. But he almost certainly took it for granted that these creatures - along with human beings - could also be traced to a deific design.

If Kilmer only knew that on the horizon were biotechnologists who had the capability of creating a brave new world of gene-spliced plants, animals - even humans!

So far, modern society is accepting the first - but with reservations; strongly challenging the second; and flatly rejecting the third - although raising concerns that the revolution of genetic engineering will eventually dictate the advent of ``designer'' people.

Today's battle is over biotechnology's intention to create the perfect pig - and the monumental implications for use of other animals for genetic experimentation.

Researchers at Embryogen, a company near Athens, Ohio, recently reported the birth of a pair of piglike creatures - whose cells have been instilled with a gene from cattle. Embryogen hopes these babies will grow into animals with more meat and less fat than your run-of-the-pen porker.

And pigs are only the beginning.

Gene-splicers across the land are champing at the bit to change the genetic makeup of dairy cows to produce pharmaceuticals that would be extracted from their milk for commercial purposes.

They believe they can engineer immunity against communicable diseases into cattle or, conversely, induce vulnerability to some human diseases - such as AIDS - into these animals, to possibly help find a cure.

Further, it is thought possible to breed livestock to withstand extreme climatic conditions. This would allow their introduction into areas - very cold, hot, or dry - where no such animals now exist.

More plentiful food, better health, better living conditions - all through genetic engineering. Who could oppose this?

The government and the courts have already paved the way for the production of new forms of animal life to improve human life.

In 1980, the United States Supreme Court - albeit by a 5-to-4 vote - allowed the granting of a patent to General Electric to develop genetically altered bacteria to digest crude oil. More important, the justices declared that Congress's intent in establishing patent laws was to ``include anything under the sun that is made by man.''

Building on that assumption, the US Patent and Trademark Office announced, as of this past April, a policy of granting patents on new forms of animal life produced by genetic engineering or other human intervention.

The patent office stressed, however, that it would not consider any patent application involving human biological material. Such a move, it said, is prohibited under the 13th Amendment, which bans slavery.

Nevertheless, a loud cry of protest against the new patent policy echoed across the land. It came from ethicists, farm groups, and animal protection organizations, among others.

The House Judiciary Subcommittee on Courts, Civil Liberties, and the Administration of Justice held hearings on the issue in June.

Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R) of Oregon succeeded in getting Congress to place a moratorium on animal patents until Sept. 30 to allow time to develop public policy on the matter.

Meanwhile, a national debate is developing, both in official and unofficial forums.

Many scientists insist there is little cause for alarm. Genetic experiments with animals, carefully monitored, minimize risks to the subject and can lead to untold scientific and medical advances, they say.

There are many, however, who are not convinced. An official of the United States Humane Society - the nation's largest animal-protection group - has described the issue as ``a question of ethics, morality,'' and ``proper regard for the very essence of life itself.''

And Jeremy Rifkin, a Washington-based lobbyist and vocal opponent of biotechnology, says, ``The patenting of animals really gives people a sense that we're talking about reducing life to a status of a manufactured commodity.''

Others say that ``tampering'' with animals is just the first step; humans will inevitably be next.

Further congressional hearings and public debate are dictated. Religious and moral concerns as well as scientific and technological questions must be raised.

A free society is swayed by public opinion. And the public must weigh the trade-offs.

Scientific and technological advancement usually exact a significant cost. In this case, society must decide if the price is too high.

A Thursday column

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