Restricting Medical Research On Chimps

I have no doubt that the next great evolution in humanity’s relationship with animals is a steady expansion of animal rights that will start to elevate the most social and intelligent animals to an approximation of “personhood.”. I don’t know how fast it will happen,  but I do believe that it will happen and that, say 100 years from now, people looking back on the way in which animals are treated today–in food production, in entertainment, and in medical research–will view us as certainly unenlightened and perhaps even barbaric.

There is a lot of momentum in the movement to bestow person-like rights on cetaceans. And the arguments are both fascinating and compelling:

There is similar energy in the effort to elevate the rights of primates and chimpanzees (also intelligent and social), and with regard to chimpanzees this is especially poignant as, unlike cetaceans, they are used for medical research.

Happily, the Institute Of Medicine, which recently completed a detailed study of chimpanzees in medical research at the behest of the National Institutes Of Health, has proposed new guidelines which hopefully will severely curtail (and eventually eliminate) the use of chimps by medical researchers.

It is a very complex issue because chimps arguably do have unique research value when it comes to finding cures for some human diseases (I don’t hold out much hope that humanity will stop entirely subordinating animal welfare to human welfare anytime soon–though I support the ethical argument to do just that). But the guidelines would at least be a significant improvement and set a much higher bar for chimp research. They are:

  • That the knowledge gained must be necessary to advance the public’s health;
  • There must be no other research model by which the knowledge could be obtained, and the research cannot be ethically performed on human subjects; and
  • The animals used in the proposed research must be maintained either in ethologically appropriate physical and social environments (i.e., as would occur in their natural environment) or in natural habitats.

These sorts of debates, and human consensus, move painfully slowly. But over years the accumulation of these incremental steps will add up to real change (I hope). I just wish that the process could be fast-forwarded from its current glacial pace.

UPDATE: Have to add this, since this 14-year old girl is a powerful example of how the future could look very different. You can imagine how an impassioned young person like this might help pick up the pace of change.

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