Several bioethicists have called for a ban on species-altering technology that would be enforced by an international tribunal.14 Part of the rationale for a ban is the concern that such technology could be used to create a slave race, that is, a race of subhumans that would be exploited. In April 1998, scientists Jeremy Rifkin and Stuart Newman, who are both opposed to genetically modified organisms (GMOs), applied for a patent for a “humanzee,” part human and part chimpanzee, to fuel debate and to draw attention to potential abuses on this issue. The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) denied the patent on the grounds that it violated the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution, which prohibits slavery. The decision has been appealed, but the appeal has not yet reached a court, and it may never do so. The appeal may be dismissed on other technical grounds.
Although the USPTO has permitted the extensive patenting of bioengineered life forms and human DNA, the question that has been raised by Newman and Rifkin’s application is one that will not be resolved easily: What constitutes a human being? A genetic definition is not very helpful, given the variability of gene sequences between individuals. A species definition is controversial, as mentioned earlier. If we look to characteristics for a definition, there are many characteristics that humans share with primates and other animals.15 If we create a being that has the ability to speak and perhaps even reason but looks like a dog or a chimp, should that being be given all the rights and protection of a human being? Some bioethicists argue that the definition of “human being” should be more expansive and protective, rather than more restrictive. Others argue that definitions that are more expansive could be denigrating to humanity’s status and create a financial disincentive to patenting creations that could be of use to humanity. The question of whether or not the definition should be more expansive or more restrictive will have to be considered as courts, legislatures, and institutions address laws regarding genetic discrimination.