Last October I wrote an essay about the decision of the European Court of Justice to deny a patent to the German neuroscientist Oliver Brüstle who had developed a method for turning human embryonic stem cells into neurons which could then be transplanted into patients with diseases such as Parkinson’s. The Court had decided that no patent could be valid on a process that involved the destruction of an embryo; such a patent was subversive of ‘human dignity’ and hence ’immoral’ and contrary to ‘public order’. I was critical of the Court’s decision, and equally so of Greenpeace, the organization that had brought the case before the Court:
If the court judgment is difficult to fathom, the attitude of Greenpeace is even more so. So hostile has the organization become to ‘big science’ that it is happy to line up with some of the most reactionary and obnoxious groups in Europe and jeopardize vital medical research… It is about time we stopped indulging theologians and Luddites in the absurd myth that they occupy the moral high ground. They don’t. They are using moral norms drawn from dogmatic and reactionary visions of life to prevent the practical alleviation of human suffering.
The essay was reprinted in Götesborg-Posten. Greenpeace took umbrage at my criticism of the organisation, and its Swedish campaign director Patrik Eriksson wrote a reply, to which I responded. I am publishing here Eriksson’s reply to my original essay together with my response.
In response to Kenan Malik’s essay in Göteborgs-Posten, in which he accuses the environmental group Greenpeace of opposing stem cell research, we want to make clear our views. First, I want to state clearly that Greenpeace is not opposed to stem cell research. We do not regard embryonic stem cell research as unethical. Nor do we take a stand as to whether or not a cluster of non-predetermined cells, so-called stem cells, should be regarded as a human being, and, thus, we are not opposed to the destruction of stem cells. Greenpeace is a religiously and politically independent organization, and does not support socially conservative arguments as Kenan Malik claims.
Access to embryonic stem cells is essential for scientists looking for a cure for severe diseases, such as multiple sclerosis or other neurological conditions. The issue at hand, however, is the risk that patenting of human embryos could lead to commercial exploitation of the human body. This is banned under the European Union Patent directive (98/44, Art.6), as well as in many individual countries and in the UN Convention on Human Rights and Biomedicine, dated 4th April, 1997. Malik paints a picture where patents are a prerequisite for science. This is a skewed view of reality. On one hand, patents can protect those who invest in medical research and manufacturing of remedies. But these are far from the only tools available – trade secrets, for example, can be maintained without patents. On the other hand, patents might become an iron wall excluding a majority of scientists searching for similar remedies but lacking the patent owner’s privileged access. Publicly funded scientists will then be forced to spend taxpayers’ money to buy access to data owned by private interests. As a consequence, a patent would impede progress.
Kenan Malik clearly did not understand what the challenge was about, nor the results of the court judgment. Because of the challenge to Brüstle’s patent, the European Court of Justice was forced to create a framework for what should be considered as acceptable in the relationship between science and patents. For science, just as for any activity, there must be a clearly defined set of rules and a framework, so that research can be conducted in a way that is acceptable for society. Such frameworks are nothing new or controversial, but have for a long time been a characteristic of medical research in particular. In addition, there has been a long-standing demand for a distinct framework for science, both from the pharmaceutical industry and the scientific community. So it is good that the European Court of Justice has been forced to revise the rules and regulations for patents based on stem cell research and make its standpoint clear.
This is, in other words, all about establishing limits for what a company should be able to patent, not about science as such. We strongly object to Malik’s accusations that Greenpeace is ‘hostile to big science’, his attributing to us certain alleged ‘moral’ views that we have never held, as well as claims that we have raised objections against the destruction of stem cells or embryos. So let us be explicit: Greenpeace stands up in defence of free and independent science. The challenge to Oliver Brüstle’s patent application is based on the belief that human cells should not be commercialized or exlusively owned by private companies. This does not mean that stem cell research as such is a bad thing.
Campaign director, Greenpeace
My thanks to Patrik Eriksson for his response to my essay on the European Court of Justice ruling on patents deriving from embryonic stem cell research, and on Greenpeace’s unfortunate role in the affair. I am unsure, however, whether he is being naïve or disingenuous in so distorting the facts to make his case.
Eriksson suggests that Greenpeace took up this case because ‘of the risk that patenting of human embryos could lead to commercial exploitation of the human body’. If Oliver Brüstle had been attempting to ‘patent human embryos’, I, too, would have opposed him. As I observed in my original essay, I disapprove of patents on natural processes or entities. In fact, Brüstle was attempting to patent not an embryo, nor even a cell, but a laboratory process, a method of generating neurons from human embryonic stem cells.
Suppose Brüstle had patented a technique to produce neurons from adult, rather than embryonic, stem cells. Would Greenpeace have objected? Unlikely. The key issue, therefore, is not that of patents but that of the legal and moral status of embryos, and of cells that derive from them. And that was the question upon which the Court primarily focused.
Under European law, patents must ‘safeguard the integrity and dignity of the person’ and not damage ‘public order or morality’. Patenting a process relating to cells derived from human embryos can undermine ‘the integrity and dignity of the person’ only if such cells in some sense possess ‘the integrity and dignity of the person’. The judges ruled that they do. Every fertilised egg, they insisted, must be recognized as an entity whose ‘human dignity’ had to be protected. They, therefore, banned any patents on scientific techniques that involve the destruction of embryos. The court, in other words, was not defending human dignity or civil liberties. It was insisting that the moral status of a handful of invisible, undifferentiated cells should be the same as that of a real, living human being. That, to me, is immoral, and deeply damaging to both human dignity and civil liberties.
It is disingenuous of Eriksson to suggest that Greenpeace does not ‘take a stand as to whether or not a cluster of non-predetermined cells, so-called stem cells, should be regarded as a human being.’ It could not have brought this case if it did not believe that such cells possess ‘human dignity’. Indeed, in the press release that Greenpeace produced after the European Court ruling, its International Senior Campaigner Lasse Bruun is quoted as saying that the ruling had ‘strengthened the protection of human life against commercial interests’. The press release concludes by insisting that the court decision will not affect medical progress because ‘in recent years, researchers have found alternative methods for obtaining stem cells, without the need to destroy human embryos’.
The question of whether medical research will be affected is a matter for debate. I, like many others, believe it will. What is clear, though, is that, contrary to what Eriksson says, what truly troubles Greenpeace is ‘the need to destroy human embryos’. In this Greenpeace shamefully lines up with the some of the most reactionary voices in Europe.