In late April, a panel of ethicists, environmentalists, and theologians representing Protestant and Jewish groups asked for a moratorium on the patenting of genetically altered animals. These churchpeople and scholars called animal patenting ``a matter of deep philosophical and spiritual concern.'' But their focus on patenting is the outgrowth of even more basic concerns about biotechnology. Most scientists say that the search for better animal breeds is as old as agriculture itself. Critics, however, point out that biotechnology allows us to alter the breeds faster and to interchange genes between species.
A position statement emanating from a Virginia symposium said that the United States Patent Office's decision to grant a patent for genetically altered mice ``portends fundamental changes in the public's perception of, and attitudes toward, animals.'' Genetically engineered animals ``would be regarded as human creations, inventions, and commodities rather than as God's creation or subjects of nature.''
If plant genetics has caused controversy, the genetic manipulation of animals is raising even broader ethical issues.
As early as last June, Michael Fox, scientific director of the Humane Society of the United States, called it ``very frightening'' to treat animals as ``simply assemblies of genes'' that can be manipulated at will by humans.
Dr. Fox stressed that the inherent nature of animals needs to be respected. He had no similar ethical reservations about plants.
Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends and an outspoken critic of genetic engineering, says that the patenting of animals ``touches a raw nerve.'' He explains that ``it gives people a sense that we're talking about reducing life to the status of a manufactured commodity, indistinguishable from other commercial products.''
And Tom Regan, president of the North Carolina-based Culture and Animals Foundation, puts it even more dramatically. In a letter to the Washington Post, he says: ``Future generations will look back and shake their heads in disbelief of the government's support of this unprecedented attack upon the integrity of life. Here, for the first time, people are being granted property rights over the life of sentient creatures who are being intentionally engineered to ensure their pain, deprivation, stress, and untimely death.''
Mr. Regan strongly urges Congress to impose a moratorium on the patenting of genetically altered higher life forms.
The Rev. Wesley Granberg-Michaelson, head of Montana's New Creation Institute, also wants a hiatus on the granting of such patents. But Mr. Granberg-Michaelson has added this does not mean all ethicists and theologians oppose all applications of biotechnology or its potential use in medical research.
He has explained that ``extending the patenting process to higher life forms, including human genetic characteristics, will give a powerful economic incentive to assumptions which view life solely as if it were a material human invention.''
``The result is an arrogant and mechanized view of the created order which is religiously and ethically ignorant and poses a profound threat to the integrity of the creation.''
The World Council of Churches, which is sponsoring a theological study on the ``integrity of creation,'' has warned against the ``consumerist and anthropomorphic world view which denigrates both matter and the extrahuman species.''
The World Council points out that Christian theology, based on Christ Jesus' love for the world, requires human beings to ``embrace the whole creation with compassion.''
Many worry that animal patenting will ultimately lead to experimentation with humans.
This is a major concern of the Boston-based Committee for Responsible Genetics. Nachama Wilker, the committee's director, says that a 1980 US Supreme Court ruling may have opened the door to the patenting of human genes. She refers to the case Diamond v. Chakrabarty, which allowed the first patent for a living organism.
Ms. Wilker also stresses that there will be a great many legal and moral questions springing from patenting of animals - including ownership rights and genetically produced offspring.
Clifford Grobstein, professor emeritus of biological science and public policy at the University of California, San Diego, examines the moral values involved in a recent column.
``We may already be on a slippery slope,'' Professor Grobstein writes. ``If we were ready to patent bacteria, why not mice? If mice, why not dolphins, why not whales? If whales, why not gorillas? If gorillas, why not people?
``What clearly emerges is that the issue isn't mice, it is our own moral sense. What, in our own values, is bigger and more significant about living things than either patents or bucks?'' He says we will face this question in respect to mice, dolphins, and eventually ourselves.
``Patenting is sociological manipulation, and it and its complex underlying rationale are spreading,'' he says. ``Either kind of manipulation can be either beneficial or dangerous,'' he concludes.