Monday, June 20, 2011

NIH's disingenuous response on chimps and bioethics

I'm mostly a supporter of the mainstream scientific institutions, but I'll take a moment here to bash the National Institute of Health and its decision to play politics with research regarding medical experimentation on chimps.

NIH wants to return "semi-retired" chimps to invasive medical experimentation, a proposal that provoked a response by several Senators demanding first a study "about the merits of continued invasive research using using chimpanzees." NIH said, okay fine, and then sent things southward.

The disingenuity is, as told by Nature, the deliberate decision to remove all ethical aspects of the research from the scope of the study. To claim you're creating an objective response to a research request that only considers the category with potential positive aspects and while excluding the category with the most potential negatives, is to be transparent. In a bad way.

What doesn't help is the argument by animal rights types that there's no medical benefit to this type of research. They're trying to avoid an ethical dilemma by claiming there's no reason to do it at all, and shutting their ears to contrary evidence. NIH isn't any better by refusing to think about ethical dilemmas.

Research defenders don't help their cause by deliberately underplaying what they want to do with the chimps. For example, they say regarding testing a Hepatitis C vaccine on chimps that "As inconveniencing tens of chimpanzees impacts the health of millions of humans, it is unethical not to use the chimp model." They don't say how they plan to examine effectiveness, but from my perspective, contracting Hepatitis C after being deliberately exposed, because a vaccine didn't work, is more than an inconvenience.

An even better example of the dilemma is the proposal to use the chimps to research treatments for Ebola. Someone needs to explain to me a humane way of infecting a chimp with Ebola. It remains a dilemma though, unless someone can explain a reason not to explore an avenue for saving human beings from Ebola.

FWIW, I'm not an animal rights type, I'm a sapientist. I'll pick a human over a chimp in some weird hypothetical matchup, but I'd rather cheat the hypo and pay some additional money so I don't have to sacrifice either. Researchers might jeer at that evasion, but their own answer is less clear cut than they think. Medical research on chimps is expensive, but only because we treat them according to modern coddling standards. Drop back to early 20th Century standards of care and willingness to euthanize unneeded specimens, and you could reach your research goals faster or cheaper. Even people who think they have a clear cut answer are actually making compromises.

Anyway, I'm not completely opposed to invasive research that doesn't hurt, scare, or medically harm chimps. Maybe the effect of public review of this issue will be to let us cheat the hypo, and inject some extra government money so we find a way to solve these medical problems without harming chimps more than we already have.


Thomas Palm said...

If the statement above is correct, what about the similar "As inconveniencing tens of humans impacts the health of millions of humans, it is unethical not to use the human model"? If you go for utilitarianism then it's hard not to support medical research on humans as well, if necessary to help a greater number.

Anonymous said...

I think being a sapientist means recognizing that chimps don't get the same moral consideration as humans because they are incapable of the kind of unethical behavior embodied in the Tuskagee syphilis study.


MikeMcc said...

Unfortunately it's politics over sensible science. Cosmetic, pharma and biotech companies, universities and other organistaions are trying to reduce the need for animal testing, but still fulfill the required level of testing prior to human trials. Largely this is due to financial pressures, but also ethical pressures.

The Declaration of Bologna:

Even within NIH:

It comes as no surprise that it's the US Senate that has stirred up the hornets nest, it is a surprise that the NIH have risen to it. Perhaps they should take a lead from the EPA?

Jim Bouldin said...

"Someone needs to explain to me a humane way of infecting a chimp with Ebola."

True enough. It appears though that the dirty work has already been done in that regard, with an effective vaccine in the works. Their last paragraph before the conclusion was a good one IMO and changed my thinking--the Mountain Gorilla stands to directly benefit from this.

"It remains a dilemma though, unless someone can explain a reason not to explore an avenue for saving human beings from Ebola."


EliRabett said...

Animal rights and animal rights law are areas of active discussion driven by changing relationships between humans and animals (esp pets) and advances in cognitive science. There have been a number of articles in Science recently by Greg Miller.

A few quotes
“Those of us who represent scientists who work with animals don't look on this as a positive development, although a lot of what they're doing we have no objection to,” says Deborah Runkle, a senior program associate at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which supports the use of animals in scientific research (and publishes Science). “It's not an immediate threat, but it's something that needs to be watched,” says Alice Ra'anan, director of government relations and science policy for the American Physiological Society. “If there's a concern, it's that there are relatively few lawyers who are interested in this who have an understanding and appreciation of animal research and of the laws that already exist to protect animals.”

The growth of animal law both reflects and encourages societal change, says Richard Cupp, who writes and teaches about the legal and moral standing of animals at Pepperdine University School of Law in Malibu, California. Cupp applauds legal protections for animal welfare, but in several law review articles he has argued that establishing legal rights for animals would not serve society's best interests. To pick one example, if animals were given the right to sue as Favre proposes, activists suing on behalf of research animals could bog down universities with endless lawsuits. “We could lose a lot of research that might be very helpful,” Cupp says.

At a more philosophical level, Cupp argues that talking about rights for animals obscures the fact that at the end of the day any legal case involving animals will be decided by humans. The developing field of animal law should focus on emphasizing and delineating humans' moral responsibility toward other animals rather than on establishing legal rights, Cupp says: “We're stepping toward something, and the fight is over what we should be stepping toward.”

and a comment on the article by Hanno Wuerbel also paywalledL
. . .Sentience, in contrast, is both a necessary and sufficient condition for the moral significance of animals (5). If applied to all sentient animals (which may include all vertebrates and possibly even some invertebrates), the abolitionist nature of animal rights would have serious consequences for our use of animals in research, in food production, and as companion animals. Restricting animal rights to intelligent animals such as chimpanzees and dolphins may have majority appeal, but it is a poor compromise. Introducing a double standard among sentient animals on the basis of cognitive capacities would likely result in fruitless controversy over which cognitive capacities are relevant, and in arbitrary discrimination against animals that may be sentient but do not possess these capacities. At least, I would expect some evidence for a positive correlation between cognitive capacity and suffering (or well-being) before promoting such a double standard, given that the correlation might in fact be negative.

Brian Schmidt said...

The problem here in the US is that the Animal Welfare Act enforcement falls to the tender mercies of the US Dept of Agriculture. When they switch their attention from slaughterhouses to research labs, they have trouble calibrating.

At the very least, the law could be enforced by an agency that's part of EPA or even HHS instead of USDA. Alternatively, a citizen suit provision could be created without acknowledging animal rights.

I don't think of a focus on cognition/sapience as a compromise. Cognitive ability creates innate moral value (maybe), and therefore rights. Treating non-sapient animals humanely can be justified on other grounds. Wuerbel's right as a predictor, however: we sapientists are going to win politically, and then get tossed out on our ears by animal rightists arguing that we're just unnecessary compromisers.

ourchangingclimate said...


Excellent post, and I also very much enjoyed (and agreed with) your older post on BSD (lined under "I'm a sapientist": ( )

Answering hypotheticals are very useful in elucidating the moral underpinnings/principles that guide someone's thinking and decisionmaking. Though as you rightly point out, in reality it's often better to search for a third way when confronted with a (false) dichotomy of chosing between two bads.


Anonymous said...

I wonder how much in vivo work really is needed...I work for one of the big pharmaceuticals in an animal health division, in clinical development and we are the ones trying to pull the regulators away from in vivo testing. Much of what we do doesn't require the animal models...but for some reason the regulators aren't there yet.

It would be nice to see some comments on the limitations of cell lines that are available, to truly justify the need to use animal models.

Anony Labmouse

Rattus Norvegicus said...

I sent this to your campaign website A post on this would be interesting...

As I'm sure your are aware, the Supreme Court made a completely routine decision in American Electric Power, et. al. v. Connecticut, et. al. last week. It seemed pretty clear cut to me (and IANAL) EPA has the right to regulate, states can not regulate because of this (supremacy clause and all of that).

However, Watts has a seriously wrong post highlighting Lawrence Solomon's column in the (Canadian) National Post:

The hilarity (or ignorance, depending on how you see it) which proceeds in the comments is interesting. I'd like to see your take on this as a lawyer, I think it would be interesting. Warning, keep a pillow close to your head if you read the comments on the Watts post (they can be pretty funny though) because of all the staunch conservatives who "understand the constitution" (which by their assertion goes w/o question, they are better at it than us liberals, afterall) who clearly don't understand how the law in this country works. It might be fun...

Marion Delgado said...

This was the first issue that convinced me Abbie Smith was a blithering idiot outside her particular field.

Holly Stick said...

If you really want your IQ to drop, read the comments at the National Post article (I haven't read the ones at that particular article, but most commenters there are stupid and repellant.)