Tuesday, October 11, 2005

The Ethics of Primate Experimentation

[Picture source:Gorilla Haven © 2003The Dewar Wildlife Trust Inc.]

Animal experimentation is a topic about which I, frankly, knew very little before I started researching for this post, which is unlikely to be the last on this topic. I will pose the question thus: Is there a moral and ethical basis for animal experimentation and how does each side of the debate answer that question? I will go on record at the outset as saying that I recognize a difference between testing done to further medicine and biology versus testing done for consumer product safety. The former is the topic I choose to discuss. The latter I find morally and ethically abhorrent and believe it should be discontinued immediately. It is impossible to justify the suffering of any living thing for human vanity and convenience.

Having clarified which kind of animal experimentation I'm discussing, I choose to start locally with a look at primate experimentation via the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center of The University of Wisconsin - Madison, as that was original focus posed to me by the reader that suggested this topic.

According to the Center's website:

[I]ts policies adhere to the U.S. Government Principles for the Utilization and Care of Vertebrate Animals Used in Testing, Research, and Training.

It's noteworthy that the Center does not spend any time on its site or in its mission statement speaking to the ethics or morality of the experiments that it performs, other than to mention its policies above. This implies, to me, an assertion of a positive moral and ethical stance inherent in the Center's existence.

Numerous animal rights groups disagree, including Alliance for Animals and Primate Freedom Project, both of which have gone on record as being very critical of the activities of the Center.

From Primate Freedom Project:

The public must be taught that monkeys and apes have minds and emotions very similar to our own. They must learn what is actually happening in laboratories right now. Once they know these things they will begin to understand that the experiments being performed on primates are as horrible as they would be if they were being performed on human children.

The conflict essentially comes down to one of advancing scientific study versus the visceral, emotional repugnance of harming other living things. Does the value of lives and well-being of the primates involved outweigh the actual and potential benefits of the experiments being performed?

According to the advocacy group Americans For Medical Progress:

A survey conducted in 1996 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the death of Alfred Nobel found universal support for animal research in medicine among responding Nobel Prize winners in physiology or medicine. Asked to judge the statement "Animal experiments have been vital to the discovery and development of many advances in physiology and medicine," 97% of the 39 responding laureates said they strongly agreed, while the other 3% said they agreed. Given the statement "Animal experiments are still crucial to the investigation and development of many medical treatments," 92% strongly agreed and 8% agreed.

Clearly, the Nobel Prize winners polled by AMP believe that animal experimentation was and remains necessary to the field of medicine, though it should be disclosed that AMP is a business-advocacy group. The commercial angle of the discussion further muddies the water, as the businesses that AMP represents have a profit motivation that could compromise certain ethical considerations.

According to Richard Smith, editor for the British medical journal bmj.com, a more moderate approach is required that at least tries to reconcile a need for animal experimentation with the ethical and moral concerns of animal welfare. These principals are referred to as the "three R's of animal research: replacement, reduction and refinement.

From Smith:

We need more understanding of the complexities of animal research and a greater concentration on where we agree.
Can any of us imagine a world where animals were not used for food, clothing, or transport, where we had no pets, where rats and other vermin were not controlled, and where an ape, or even a fly, was regarded as the moral equal of the Archbishop of Canterbury? Most of us can't, and many people in Britain accept the need for some animal research Yet most of us would not tolerate a world where animals had no rights and could be exploited for whatever cause. We thus have to find some middle ground in our relationship with animals, and a world that tries to afford more rights to men and women will probably also try to give more to animals.


Replacement is "any scientific method employing non-sentient material which may . . . replace methods which use conscious, living vertebrates." Reduction is lowering "the number of animals needed to obtain information of a given account and precision." Refinement is any development that leads to a "decrease in the incidence or severity of inhumane procedures applied to those animals which have to be used."

My belief is that this moderate view strikes closest to what must be a realistic approach to the issue. I confess my bias in that I am more likely to find common cause with science; I don't tend to be moved much by the emotional and visceral approach of many advocacy groups. I believe appealing to emotion instead of reason is a primary tactic of the social conservative Right, particularly in matters of life and death, and I believe it is a mistake for Leftist organizations to resort to those kinds of tactics. I am no more moved by pictures of mutilated apes shown on animal advocates' websites than I am by pictures of dismembered fetuses used by anti-abortion groups.

Having said that, I believe the real debate comes down to the moral standings of humans and animals; do humans and animals share the same moral ground? Certainly it is the primary directive of any organism to protect and propagate the species. Thus, it could be argued, that human beings are morally justified in using primates for medical research if it helps to protect and propagate the human species. I don't wholly agree with this.

On the other hand, given the human ability to rise above the call of instinct, and given that humans are almost globally overpopulated from an environmental perspective, it could also be argued that humans have moral obligation to cease all such activities on the grounds that humans hold a special place outside apart from all other species due to our superior reasoning ability. My problem with that argument is that it feeds right back into the "special creation" notion popularized by many religious groups; that humans were specially created to be separate from the animal kingdom and, thus, above it. I don't agree with that approach either.

In the end, I believe in a middle ground, similar to that outlined by Harris. Some animal testing is necessary to further biology and medical science and I find that morally acceptable only to the point that no other viable alternative exists. I believe that animal experimentation should only be for scientific and medical purposes, never commercial. Profit motive corrupts any moral stance and this one is no exception to that sad rule. I believe that entire scientific organizations should not be held as unethical because of the unethical actions of certain individuals. If a primate lab has a certain scientist that engages in animal cruelty, then that scientist should be reprimanded, terminated and, likely, prosecuted. There is no excuse for wanton cruelty. Finally, I believe that our laws must reflect that animal experimentation must always be the last option in scientific and medical research. In so much that other viable options are available, I believe we have a moral obligation to engage them.

I suspect that my view is not going to be in line with that of the reader that suggested this topic; I accept that as the cost of discussing controversial issues. But I also suspect (and hope) that this will get a good discussion going!
[Thanks to MZ for the stellar topic!]

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