A notable policy shift has taken place at the National Institute of Health. Following months of evaluation, the agency announced last week that it plans to discontinue funding of invasive research using great apes and other higher primates. While some medical industry groups denounce the move away from the lucrative cash cow of invasive primate research, the NIH move signals an important moral evolution of scientific policy.
According to the recent NIH report, about 1,000 chimps are available for research in the U.S. The government owns roughly half of the current population of primate research subjects. NIH says its chimpanzees at the highly controversial New Iberia Research Center in Louisiana will be relocated to non-testing sanctuaries. Beginning in August 2013, the facility won’t receive any NIH funds.
In an interview with the Washington Post, NIH Director Francis Collins stated, “This is a significant step in winding down NIH’s investment in chimpanzee research based on the way science has evolved and our great sensitivity to the special nature of these remarkable animals, our closest relatives.”
Wayne Pacelle, president and CEO of the Humane Society of the United States, lauded the change: “NIH’s announcement is a significant step forward in our goal toward ending invasive experiments on chimpanzees and facilitating the move of the current population of chimps in laboratories to reputable sanctuaries.”
The HSUS, the Physicians Committee for Responsible Research and other groups are promoting a bill currently before Congress (H. R. 1326) that would gradually phase out invasive chimp research altogether. NIH notes that primate research has yielded important medical and scientific information in the past, but contends that era of research is now largely obviated.
One need not go too far down the road of medical ethics to conclude invasive primate research is a fundamentally immoral undertaking — that is allowed to exist only because of its historical camouflage under a veil of consequentialism. In other words, humans have justified the wantonly cruel, painful and torturous machinations of primate research under the umbrella of the ends justifying the means. As their reasoning goes, if we get enough good out of the process, it’s okay to cause terrific hurt.
It should be noted that there are some pretty clear lines between humans and our great ape kin. That said, we are genetically and otherwise physiologically close enough that researchers find apes to be a good analogue to humans. Somehow though, they disconnect from the fact that apes have a demonstrable capacity for many human social and behavioral attributes: They have complex social organizations; they make and use tools; some have been taught symbolic language and basic math; they demonstrate emotion; they show an apparent self-awareness.
Even so, they are not us. We could extend the primate researchers’ logic to equally gruesome other ends. In looking for alternate research populations, we might return to using prison inmates. If we follow the present researcher logic to its absurd end, we see a clear defense of invasive testing on human prisoners.
Take for example, prisoners who have been given sentences of life without parole. In order to garner such a punishment, the courts have effectively ruled that the inmate exhibited such aberrant behavior that they are no longer suitable as members of society. Yes, we must feed, clothe and house them, but they forfeit their privilege of human society. They are declared no longer sufficiently like the rest of us to be one of us. Yes, they may look like us, but on a fundamental moral level, they aren’t one of us. By the logic of animal research, they would be amenable to vivisection and all the other nightmares visited on apes.
At the end of the day, organizations like Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, a staunch opponent of H. R. 1326, have little upon which to base their opposition that isn’t Machiavellian, money-driven or otherwise self-serving. In a perverse twist of logic, FASEB, even argues that one of the benefits of perpetuating primate-invasive research is the potential for improving the care of the apes themselves.
When you deconstruct any industry opposition to the ugliness of animal testing, their counter is always the same — look how much good it has done. Certainly, indisputable good has come of it. We could also use genocide to control overpopulation, torture to get criminal convictions and slavery to increase industrial production. Just because the public ends are positive, doesn’t mean the path to them is moral.
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Matthew Pate, a Pine Bluff native who holds a doctoral degree in criminal justice, is a senior research fellow with the Violence Research Group at the University at Albany. He may be contacted via email@example.com