I encourage you to restrict the use of primates in harmful, non-therapeutic biomedical research for the reasons that harmful, non-therapeutic biomedical research shouldn’t be allowed on human beings: it is harmful to the subject of the research, it is not in their benefit – it is an attempt to “use” one for the potential benefit of another, they do not and would not consent to it, and we would not agree to it, if we saw from their perspectives. In short, every powerful reason to not allow harmful experimentation on non-consenting human beings also applies to non-human primates. Given that, research on them should , at least, be seriously restricted or, ideally, outright banned, for ethical reasons.
Associate Professor of Philosophy, Morehouse College
As Dr. John Gluck points out in his recent Opinion Editorial in The New York Times, in 1974, a federal commission was formed to develop ethical principles for human research.  In contrast, no similar, comprehensive and principled effort has addressed the use of animals in research – despite the large body of science showing how animals can suffer physically and mentally. To address this gap, Dr. Gluck, Dr. Tom Beauchamp, many other colleagues, and I worked on a multi-disciplinary National Science Foundation grant exploring the limits of existing animal research guidelines, as well as potential solutions.  Results were reported in multiple publications, including a special issue of Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics called Rethinking the Ethics of Research Involving Nonhuman Animals.  One of the articles, authored by primatologist Dr. Agustin Fuentes and myself, addressed the imbalance between the harms of research involving nonhuman primates and deprivation of benefits to them. We concluded much of the laboratory research conducted today has inadequate standards, leading to significant physical, psychological, and social harms to nonhuman primates.  Several other articles in the series examine how widely recognized bioethical principles could better inform decisions about the use of animals, including nonhuman primates, in research.  I urge you to consider factors such as these in your deliberations.
Please see the following links for reference:
In last year’s House Appropriation’s Bill HR 2029, the United States Congress asked the National Institute of Health to “conduct a review of its ethical policies and processes with respect to nonhuman primate research subjects, in consultation with outside experts, to ensure it has appropriate justification for animal research protocols.”
In an accompanying letter explaining their thinking behind the request, five members of Congress wrote:
We continue to believe that the time has come to critically evaluate the ethical policies and process surrounding all nonhuman primate research…We are confident that you will ensure the review is as independent as possible, so that the most difficult ethical questions with regards to the use of all non-human primates in a wide range of experiments can be honestly asked and answered…We look forward to working with you to ensure that critical taxpayer dollars are spent on research that is scientifically and ethically justified and appropriately humane to all non-human primate subjects involved.
In response, the NIH outlined their plans on a blog post for a Sept 7th Symposium focused on the ethics of primate research. After noting that the “NIH remains confident that the oversight framework for the use of non-human primates in research is robust and has provided sufficient protections to date,” the post explains the NIH’s plans to, “discuss the ethical principles underlying existing animal welfare regulations and policies” and requested 250 word comments from the public about the topics of the symposium and potential speakers.
This Congressional request and the workshop provide an excellent opportunity for thoughtful and informed discussion on the ethics of non-human primate research. Public views on research, the frameworks of professional ethicists, and scientists’ understanding of primate cognition have all evolved tremendously in recent years, and it is important for the NIH to make sure that their approach to research is responsive to these developments.
In their request for comments, the NIH noted that comments “may be shared publicly.” Since it is not clear if all comments will necessarily be shared publicly, and since this is a great opportunity to have a thoughtful discussion about the ethics of primate research, I have created this blog to highlight the comments from experts on ethics and primate cognition as a resource for the public and for future discussions. My hope is that academics and other experts will use the 250 word comments as an opportunity to think about what an ideal discussion of the ethics of primate cognition should look like. What ethical frameworks should be taken into account? What is the relevant research on the cognitive and affective capacities of primates? Which types of expertise should be represented in such a workshop?
If you haven’t already, please make sure to submit your 250 word comment to the NIH by clicking this link. If you would like your comment posted on this site, please email me at ashriver [at] mail.med.upenn.edu .