The Daily Mail reports that the European Court of Justice has just ruled that it is illegal to patent technological processes and treatment which use of embryonic stem cells because this constitutes ‘commercial exploitation’ which is contrary to morality:
Scientists warned the ‘devastating decision’ will stop pioneering treatments for degenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s being developed in the UK, with potentially catastrophic consequences for the multi-million pound biotechnology industry.
The decision follows a case brought by Greenpeace in Germany against Professor Oliver Brüstle … at the University of Bonn. He filed a patent with the German government in 1997 to convert embryonic stem cells into nerve cells to help patients with Parkinson’s disease
Greenpeace challenged it and the case went to the highest court in Germany and then Luxembourg.
The resulting 10-page judgement prohibits patenting any process which involves removing a stem cell from and then destroying a ‘human embryo’ – defined as anything ‘capable of commencing the process of development of a human being.’
It states: ‘Patents may not be granted for inventions whose commercial exploitation would be contrary to morality… In particular patents shall not be awarded for uses of human embryos for industrial or commercial purpose.’
The court has ruled that patenting these processes would contradict the European law which protects human life, including embryos, on the grounds that it forms ‘commercialisation’ of human parts.
A full copy of the decision is available here.
Russell Blackford raises the question of whether we really want courts coming down on one side in these kinds of moral decisions when there are plural positions which are not yet settled in society. I agree that going to court is not really the best means to settle these kinds of very tricky moral issues (‘hard cases make bad law’ and all that…)
I was mildly surprised to see that Greenpeace was the originator of the legal action. Then again, perhaps it is not at all surprising — after all, I read that Greenpeace activists in Canberra destroyed genetically modified crops grown by CSIRO the other day.