NIH Nonhuman Primate Workshop on “Ethics” Missed the Mark

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Rhesus Monkeys

“As anyone who has grappled with ethical issues knows, simply listing the benefits of an action is not the same as providing an ethical justification for the action. In fact, many would argue that precisely what sets ethical behavior apart from purely self-interested behavior is that in ethical behavior we recognize that there are constraints on some actions even if those actions have benefits.”
Dr. Adam Shriver, bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania Center for Neuroscience & Society


Last week, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) held a workshop, at the request of Congress, to examine the ethics of nonhuman primate experimentation—an important task given the cognitive abilities of these animals, as well as their capacity to suffer in lab experiments. Unfortunately, a serious conversation about ethics did not take place, causing many to view the workshop as having failed to meet the intent of Congress, as well as being a wasted opportunity to discuss whether there is ethical justification for continued use of these animals in experimentation.

After viewing a draft agenda of the workshop, NAVS communicated with the NIH to express our concern that it appeared to be taking the position that nonhuman primate experimentation was already justified, and that the workshop would not adequately address ethics or alternatives to nonhuman primate research. But the NIH did not change its course.

Not one of the presentations at the day-long workshop was allotted to a bioethicist. The morning sessions discussed the science of nonhuman primate use; the afternoon sessions described the current regulatory framework.

Bioethicists Jeff Kahn and Tom Beauchamp tried to steer the conversation back to ethics, but were given limited time to speak.

Kahn, who chaired the Institute of Medicine (IOM) Committee on the Necessity of Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research in 2011, reminded workshop participants that it wasn’t sufficient to make “claims about necessity” for nonhuman primate research without articulating criteria for justifying the use of these animals in research. He noted that it is not ethical to do research that is not necessary, and that the benefit of doing research needs to outweigh the moral cost of harming nonhuman animals.

Kahn also reminded workshop participants of the outcome of similar discussions with chimpanzees—that most research on chimpanzees was considered unnecessary when factoring in scientific and ethical justification. Given Kahn’s experience on the IOM chimpanzee committee, it is a shame he did not give a presentation at this workshop.

Beauchamp reiterated these issues, noting, “A lot of people here have been saying that scientific necessity is the key issue.…That’s just the first step. There has to be moral justification as well.”

Although a half hour was devoted to public comments on the agenda, only about two minutes of the workshop were spent discussing them. This was interesting given the large percentage of these comments which expressed serious concerns about nonhuman primate experimentation, the failure of the NIH workshop to discuss alternatives to their use, and the lack of a true discussion of ethics.

NAVS is disappointed that the NIH disregarded Congress’ request to examine the ethics of research on nonhuman primates. Please TAKE ACTION and tell the NIH that they should convene a balanced group of bioethicists and scientists to fully examine the ethics of research on nonhuman primates in the near future.


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Workshop on ethics of monkey research earns cheers and boos
September 8, 2016

Depending on whom you ask, yesterday’s U.S. government workshop on the state of nonhuman primate research was either a raging success or a complete fiasco.

For more information, see Science

This entry was posted in News and tagged on September 12, 2016.
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