European Court of Justice on Human Dignity and the Patentability of Human Embryos

An interesting judgment from the European Court of Justice this week relating to work with human embryonic stem cells: In response to a certification from the German Federal Court of Justice, the ECJ held that the European Directive on the Legal Protection of Biotechnological Inventions (1998) forbids the patenting of human embryos, or techniques that require the destruction of human embryos, for industrial or commercial purposes, including purposes of scientific research. The Directive prohibits patents for “uses of human embryos for industrial or commercial purposes,” and indicates that this prohibition extends to all processes that “offend against” the fundamental principle of “human dignity.” The ECJ concluded that the Directive’s reference to “human dignity” required that the phrase “human embryo” be “understood in a wide sense” to include not only fertilized human eggs, but also unfertilized eggs and stem cells, if they are “capable of commencing the process of development of a human being.”

The concept of human dignity is a fundamental one in European law; many religious-freedom cases in the ECtHR employ it, for example. The concept is not so prominent in American jurisprudence, which tends to be more libertarian. Some scholars argue that roots of the principle in European law lie in Catholic Social Theory, and the principle is certainly consistent with Christian ethics. I assume that, like most concepts in European jurisprudence, the principle has roots in Enlightenment thought as well. The judgment is Brüstle v. Greenpeace (Grand Chamber) (18 Oct. 2011). – MLM

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