Should research ethics protect non-human primates as children?

I’ve played with the idea of writing about why chimpanzees are not more protected than children. But whenever I start to develop the argument it seems absurd – anyone who knows what laboratory animal research regulation looks like knows that chimpanzees are not more protected than children! Except that I regularly come across people who argue that in Europe chimpanzees are more protected than children.

I understand where the argument comes from: there is a single regulatory framework for research with animals in Europe (Directive 2010/63/EU) but not for research involving children. Now, this doesn’t mean that there are no rules for children’s participation in research, it only means that the rules differ between countries. And as far as I know, none of these rules allows any researcher to involve a child in invasive and risky research under any condition – except perhaps if that research is likely to help the child. In contrast, a so called safeguard clause allows EU Member States to lift the general ban on the use of great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, orangutans and gorillas) in invasive research “in relation to an unexpected outbreak of a lifethreatening or debilitating clinical condition in human beings” (Directive 2010/63/EU Article 55:2). Or in other words, facing an outbreak of Ebola in Europe, vaccine trials in chimpanzees would be permissible. (Whether this research could actually be done in practice is a different question. For a long time, the only industrialized country to keep chimpanzees for invasive research was the USA, but in 2015 the NIH announced it would no longer fund such research and lab chimps are now being retired into sanctuaries).

Interestingly, before I got around to writing any of this, I came across this paper which proposes that research regulation should protect chimpanzees and in fact all non-human primates (NHPs) in much the same way as it protects human research subjects. The authors argue that with so many important similarities in cognitive, emotional and social capacities, it doesn’t make sense to have different ethical frameworks depending on whether a primate is human or non-human. Therefore, they argue, we should move non-human primates out of the utilitarian framework that is generally applied to animal research ethics and into the deontological framework that applies to human research subjects. In practice, this means that research with non-human primates should respect the principles of beneficence and non-malevolence, or in other words, research should preferably benefit and definitely not harm the research subjects.

The paper is an interesting contribution to the debate and well worth reading, for the ideas and the examples of research that would be acceptable under a deontological framework. The idea that some animals should be given a rights-based protection is not new (it underlies the entire animal rights movement), but the paper contributes a unique discussion of the potential to do biomedical research with NHPs in a way that is compatible with the principles of benevolence, non-maleficience and even autonomy and justice. Unfortunately, I don’t think that the picture they paint is realistic. What can be achieved by studying naturally occurring situations is strongly limited, and I would have appreciated if the authors had been more thorough in their analysis of  what research would be made impossible if changing the ethical framework. On the other hand, if this were a paper about how to protect children in research, nobody would dream of arguing about the important research benefits to be lost if children couldn’t be harmed in research! This observation in itself clearly marks the difference in thinking about research in utilitarian and consequentialist terms versus in deontological terms.

From a pragmatic perspective, taking into account the diversity of opinion on the matter, I don’t foresee a change of framework any time soon for non-human primates in research at large. A change for the great apes is way more likely to happen in the near future. With the phasing out of invasive research in chimpanzees, the only great ape species which really played a role in biomedical research, a full ban may be accepted without much protest. By then, it may be reasonable to ask if chimpanzees enjoy greater protection than children in biomedical research. .