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Rabbi Bulka's Weekly Question

Do you think a researcher who has come up with a new life form should be able to patent it?

If it is to play God, no. But why should this be different than any other patent for an invention or a medication?

There are many endeavours underway to improve life, to get at the root of life, to create life. There are obvious dangers to this endeavour, but there are also immense potential benefits.

For example, if we should ever be able to clone kidneys, we would be able to save the lives of the many who are on the waiting list for kidney transplants.

The person who succeeds in coming up with the secret for doing this will have made a great contribution to the betterment of society. Why should that be outside the parameters of what is patentable? Should it be any different than insulin, or the polio vaccine?

My sense is that patents are not, or at least they should not be, one-way streets. A one-way-street patent is one in which a patentee is given the exclusive licence for a specific product, which the licensee can use in whatever manner the licensee wants. A better type of patent includes an exclusive licence, but that exclusivity is not a carte blanche to do whatever the patentee wants. Instead, by virtue of the patent, the pantentee is obliged to play by the rules, and to use the patented product in an approved and responsible manner.

Surely, we would all want this for someone who has created a new life form. The alternative to having a patent could lead to dreadful consequences -- the new life form unleashed in an irresponsible way and triggering a potentially devastating assault on the world as we know it. Are we really open to the prospect of cloned armies, for example? That would lead to massive destruction and manipulation.

Will patents prevent this? Maybe not, but at least there is a chance it might. With the enormity of the lurking dangers, we should use whatever control we may have to prevent new life forms from veering out of control.

Originally published in the Ottawa Citizen on January 26, 2008

Sun, May 31 2020 8 Sivan 5780