Received: from mailhub.unibe.ch (mailhub.unibe.ch [220.127.116.11]) by enaila.nidlink.com (8.9.0/8.9.0) with ESMTP id JAA13666 Sheep cloning, the potential "re-birth" of the Wooly Mammoth, "super" corn and "super" rice - all are made possible by new developments in the life sciences. They are examples of man's recent discovery of the complexity of DNA genomes, the basic codes of life. These relatively new discoveries come at a moment of a huge growth in the world's population, and they have unleashed some astounding new developments in medicine, agriculture and even how we shop at the grocery store.
In Seattle this month, the World Trade Organization (WTO) will hold its "Third Ministerial Conference." While in the past international trade negotiations have not seemed to be matters of riveting concern, this particular meeting has focused the attention of biologists, farmers, agricultural scientists, consumer advocates, environmentalists and citizens groups from around the world.
Why is this?
Among other things, the conference will establish the ground rules for the ways in which intellectual property rights are interpreted worldwide. The ways in which these laws are subsequently carried forward by the WTO could substantially shape the future course of life on Earth. Intellectual property is composed of patents and "copyrights" - that is, the right to "own" and assert exclusive control over certain forms of "information." Ever since the 1980 Chakrabarty ruling in the Supreme Court, the United States has recognized that the kinds of information that can be "owned" include genetic information.
This is a staggering new development in human social organization - but one with ominous echoes of the past. Not since it became illegal to own slaves in the 19th century have humans sought to extend ownership control so thoroughly over other organisms. Just as with slavery in the past, genetic ownership in our day means the ability to control organisms; i.e., the ability to sell the organism or manipulate its reproduction for profit.
In effect, the WTO meetings in Seattle will seek to extend the recognition of intellectual property rights to include patent rights in biotechnology, setting worldwide ground rules to govern ownership and competition in this realm.
This effort has raised objections from citizens and scientists around the world. Many feel the expansion of intellectual property rights into the realm of biotechnology is a major mistake, pointing out that biotechnology poses profound and abiding moral problems for all societies. Additionally, mounting scientific evidence suggests that we should not rush to judgment nor be driven into hasty decisions about biotechnology based on its immediate potential for profit. Even biotechnology's promise of better human health needs to be considered with careful deliberation.
The reason for exercising caution is that biotechnology is not like other technologies. Mechanical or electronic technologies deal with things. Mere things can be manipulated, altered and even destroyed with impunity if one "owns" them. Biotechnology, however, deals with living organisms. These organisms function within communities of other organisms, affecting and being affected by the environment around them. Biology students learn that the first law of any ecosystem is: "you can never do just one thing." Modifying the genetic codes of an organism is an act that should only be undertaken with a heightened sense of moral responsibility. Questions of the morality of public policy should come to the fore at the WTO summit.
Moral and ethical questions concern how we should behave. To resolve them, we must invoke criteria that enable us to decide what should or what should not be done.
Every known culture possesses forms of morality - that is to say, all cultures possess criteria for determining what is "right" as opposed to "wrong;" "good" as opposed to "bad." This is built into the human condition as much as language itself. Unless broadly and carefully applied, international trade law will merely confound and exacerbate these cultural differences.
Cultural criteria are more than just personal preferences. Instead, they represent culturally shared judgments about the hierarchy of right and wrong, good and bad.
At the WTO conference at least six different forms of ethical valuation are vying for primacy and political dominance in considering the morality of biotechnology. Spelled out, these six are:
Almost anyone who offers an opinion on ethical matters in biotechnology expresses their concern from one or another of these different traditions or some combination of them. Which of these six perspectives will prevail in formulating public policy? Which should prevail? Why? These are some of the questions that are at stake in the upcoming Seattle meetings of the WTO.
Tim Weiskel is the director of Harvard University's Environmental Values and Public Policy Program
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Last Updated on 11/20/99
By Karen Lutz