Human Exceptionalism

NIH Correct to Restrict Funding of Chimp Research

The NIH has determined it will restrict–not eliminate–federal funding of medical research on chimpanzees.  From the NYT story:

The National Institutes of Health on Thursday suspended all new grants for biomedical and behavioral research on chimpanzees and accepted the first uniform criteria for assessing the necessity of such research. Those guidelines require that the research be necessary for human health, and that there be no other way to accomplish it.       

In making the announcement, Dr. Francis S. Collins, the director of the N.I.H., said that chimps, as the closest human relatives, deserve “special consideration and respect” and that the agency was accepting the recommendations released earlier in the day by an expert committee of the Institute of Medicine, which concluded that most research on chimpanzees was unnecessary

The report offered two sets of criteria, one for biomedical experiments, which it said could be considered necessary when there was no other way to do the research — with other animals, lab techniques or human subjects — and if not doing the research would “significantly slow or prevent important advancements to prevent, control and/or treat life-threatening or debilitating conditions.”   

Notice, that we are always the measure because we are exceptional.

So, what kinds of research still require chimps?

The committee identified two areas where it said the use of chimpanzees could be necessary. One is research on a preventive vaccine for hepatitisC. The committee could not agree on whether this research fit the criteria and so left that decision open. In the second area, research on immunology involving monoclonal antibodies, the committee concluded that experimenting on chimps was not necessary because of new technology, but because the new technology was not widespread, projects now under way should be allowed to reach completion.  

Government funding criteria send strong ethical messages–as President Bush did with embryonic stem cell research. This seems the proper decision, and for similar reasons.

Moreover, I am most pleased that the policy change was based on animal welfare–not animal rights–principles.  If there are legitimate reasons to do chimp research, it can still be funded by the NIH.  In any event, such research should not be outlawed.  You never know when that special case will arise.


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