Basic and applied laboratory research, whenever intrusive or invasive, presents substantial ethical challenges for ethical committees, be it with human beings or with non-human animals. In this paper we discuss the use of non-human primates (NHPs), mostly as animal models, in laboratory based research. We examine the two ethical frameworks that support current legislation and guidelines: deontology and utilitarianism. While human based research is regulated under deontological principles, guidelines for laboratory animal research rely on utilitarianism. We argue that the utilitarian framework is inadequate for this purpose: on the one hand, it is almost impossible to accurately predict the benefits of a study for all potential stakeholders; and on the other hand, harm inflicted on NHPs (and other animals) used in laboratory research is extensive despite the increasing efforts of ethics committees and the research community to address this. Although deontology and utilitarianism are both valid ethical frameworks, we advocate that a deontological approach is more suitable, since we arguably have moral duties to NHPs. We provide suggestions on how to ensure that research currently conducted in laboratory settings shifts towards approaches that abide by deontological principles. We assert that this would not impede reasonable scientific research.
Approximately 4,000 – 5,000 scientific procedures using non-human primates (NHPs) are commenced annually in Great Britain. The 2011 review by Bateson and colleagues was the first major systematic assessment of the ethics of this research. It concluded that 91% of 67 NHP studies conducted from 1997 – 2006 were ethically justifiable. However, the review systematically underestimated the costs to the NHPs. Additionally, it concluded that the medical impacts of a significant proportion of studies was low, and was sometimes exaggerated. Accordingly, the majority of these studies were incorrectly assessed as ethically justified. Many of the responses of the funding organisations to the review’s recommendations were positive. Deeply concerning, however, was their failure to adequately acknowledge or respond to repeated criticisms concerning unsubstantiated claims and exaggerations of the medical value of NHP research. Clearly, poorly-substantiated claims about the medical utility of NHP studies by researchers or their funding organisations must be met with considerable caution.
On December 15, 2011, the US Institute of Medicine (IOM) released Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research: Assessing the Necessity. The report concluded that most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is not warranted, but stopped short of recommending an outright ban. This article is my analysis of that position. I concluded that alternatives exist for the few current research fields for which the IOM committee felt chimpanzee research might possibly be necessary, and that, in any case, the adverse welfare impacts on chimpanzees subjected to invasive research — which appeared to receive little consideration — render such research unethical.
The advanced sensory, psychological and social abilities of chimpanzees confer upon them a profound ability to suffer when born into unnatural captive environments, or captured from the wild — as many older research chimpanzees once were — and when subsequently subjected to confinement, social disruption, and involuntary participation in potentially harmful biomedical research. Justifications for such research depend primarily on the important contributions advocates claim it has made toward medical advancements. However, a recent large-scale systematic review indicates that invasive chimpanzee experiments rarely provide benefits in excess of their profound animal welfare, bioethical and financial costs. The approval of large numbers of these experiments — particularly within the US — therefore indicates a failure of the ethics committee system. By 2008, legislative or policy bans or restrictions on invasive great ape experimentation existed in seven European countries, Japan, Australia and New Zealand. In continuing to conduct such experiments on chimpanzees and other great apes, the US was almost completely isolated internationally. In 2007, however, the US National Institutes of Health National Center for Research Resources implemented a permanent funding moratorium on chimpanzee breeding, which is expected to result in a major decline in laboratory chimpanzee numbers over the next 30 years, as most are retired or die. Additionally, in 2008, The Great Ape Protection Act was introduced to Congress. The bill proposed to end invasive research and testing on an estimated 1,200 chimpanzees confined within US laboratories, and, for approximately 600 federally-owned, to ensure their permanent retirement to sanctuaries. These events have created an unprecedented opportunity for US legislators, researchers, and others, to consider a global ban on invasive chimpanzee research. Such a ban would not only uphold the best interests of chimpanzees, and other research fields presently deprived of funding, but would also increase the compliance of US animal researchers with internationally-accepted animal welfare and bioethical standards. It could even result in the first global moratorium on invasive research, for any non-human species, unless conducted in the best interests of the individual or species.
Biomedical research on captive chimpanzees incurs substantial nonhuman animal welfare, ethical, and financial costs that advocates claim result in substantial advancements in biomedical knowledge. However, demonstrating minimal contribution toward the advancement of biomedical knowledge generally, subsequent papers did not cite 49.5% (47/95), of 95 experiments randomly selected from a population of 749 published worldwide between 1995 and 2004. Only 14.7% (14/95) were cited by 27 papers that abstracts indicated described well-developed methods for combating human diseases. However, detailed examination of these medical papers revealed that in vitro studies, human clinical and epidemiological studies, molecular assays and methods, and genomic studies contributed most to their development. No chimpanzee study made an essential contribution, or, in most cases, a significant contribution of any kind, to the development of the medical method described. The approval of these experiments indicates a failure of the ethics committee system. The demonstrable lack of benefit of most chimpanzee experimentation and its profound animal welfare and bioethical costs indicate that a ban is warranted in those remaining countries — notably the United States — that continue to conduct it.