by GRAIN | 25 Mar 1995

March 1995


A viewpoint on the European Parliament's historic rejection of the life patenting directive last 1 March (see lead article)


When we were sitting in the hemicycle of the European Parliament last 1 March, many different sensations filled the air, our heads and our hearts: tension, suspense, anxiety, fear, caution, concern, desperation. In short, it was agony. MEPs (Members of the European Parliament) spent two and a half hours coming forth to voice their final concerns about the directive, before passing to the firm resolve of action. It was a closing period of testimony, of question-raising, of admission and of rallying forces to one side or the other. The body was clearly divided. And the arguments were clearly split. Some said the directive meant "white", while others insisted it meant "black". The power and potential of the science beckoning humanity's absolution through the directive was evident. The meaning of the law up for consideration by the group was confusing. The ethical implications were the challenge to decipher. And the Parliament's sense of fear grew into reserve.

The vote against the directive was historic and moving because it was an act of social responsibility not to be expected (unfortunately) of democratic institutions these days. The feeling was so palpable as one cast one's eyes across the room: these people, for one moment, pushed all the talk about money aside and acted as human beings. The interests of capital were second-rated for a brief spell and the primacy of conscience allowed to guide and rule. For that alone, we have to salute the European Parliamentarians. They were fearful, but they were even more brave.

The importance of this move has to be recognised and honoured. In the final moment, what was scaring people most was the idea that this piece of legislation:

- not only didn't stop at strengthening and harmonising intellectual property rights law in the European Union, like its proponents tried to get across;

- not only would have a powerful normative function towards the future of biotechnology research and development, in Europe and elsewhere;

- not only bore huge ethical implications, which is recognised by patent law but not embraced by it;

- but it would allow for the patenting of human genetic material and bestow some form of legitimacy to the permanent genetic alteration of humankind by humankind.

The directive wanted to provide financial returns to investors, despite the numerous subsidies that public and private biotechnology researchers already receive from tax payers — be they farmers or hospital patients. But by seeking to determine what is patentable and what is not, the directive also meant to edict the parameters of what is economically sanctioned research in the field of life sciences, with respect to intellectual monopolies. And it included human beings. "Out," said the Parliament. "No."

We must salute that body for its courage. Money is intimidating. How could we NGO folk forget the day back in 1991 when two of us walked into a Dutch MEP's office to talk to him about the issues raised by the patenting directive and he handed us a small card. "Here, this is my lawyer," he said. "If you want to talk to me, you clear it with him first." I.e. pay up. We had to dish out the cash to talk to an MEP. His ears — and his voting hands — were for hire, not for public duty. In this vein, the Parliamentarians could have backed down from their moral disconcertment last 1 March and said, "Okay, this legislation will promote research and that's important for industry and public health." What industry? What public health system? Whose gain and whose loss? Dignity was the key word on everyone's lips. And it was not to be sold off.

The business press has scoffed that the EP forgot the law of dollars and cents (= sense) and bowed to "emotion" instead. Why should we be intimidated? Why can we not ask questions and take brave decisions? What is politics if we are punished for being human? And why talk about democracy at all if "human rights" are to be swept under the rug as mere "emotions" with no currency in the bullish biotechnology market?

For us NGO people who have been involved in the battle from the start — trying to raise awareness, trying to promote broad public debate on the issue despite its seemingly abstract and technical nature — the vote was a strong political statement to the world. And it said: "There are ethical problems with the way biotechnology is being used in society and there is something very wrong with the idea of patenting life forms, especially human genes. We need to set rules for science and technology that are socially responsible." For five seconds, industry's stronghold over politics was tempered by politicians' attention to social values. At least for those five seconds when the EP cast its vote.

This is a unique opening up. You could almost say that in the 1980s we started "greening" the world economy. (With whatever success or failure by now under way.) The decision of the European Parliament could be a signal that in the 1990s we start "moralising" it. At least the Parliament's move is a shock signal pointing in that possible direction. And of course people are scared. This is new. This is urgently needed. People have been fighting oppression for all of human history. "NGOs" are only a new clothing for what people have been doing forever: fighting for liberation and justice.

Democracy functioned differently in one major political forum last 1 March. Conscience, values, ethics, morality and concern for dignity overrode the seduction of capital's greed and power. The fear was there at the final hour of the directive's fate. Let us not denigrate that fear: we should embrace it and help it metamorphose into understanding, strength and life affirming action this time — such as a total renegotiation of what innovation is, how you promote it and how you protect peoples' rights related to it.

Author: GRAIN