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Bioethics Forum Essay

Experiments on Nonhuman Primates: Q & A with Anne Barnhill

The use of animals in medical research has been a hotly contested moral issue for years. In 2010, the European Union banned virtually all research on great apes (gorillas, bonobos, orangutans, and chimpanzees.) In 2013 the National Institutes of Health issued guidelines, based on a 2011 Institute of Medi­cine report, which eliminated most biomedical research with chimpan­zees in the United States. Medical research continues, however, on other types of nonhuman primates.

An article in the July-August issue of the Hastings Center Report explored whether infection challenge research on nonhuman primates other than great apes should be subject to tighter restrictions. Such research has been important in the effort to develop treatments and vaccines for Ebola. After reviewing the Institute of Medicine’s criteria for biomedical research on chimpanzees, the authors concluded that infection challenges that harm NHPs are not justifiable unless they meet specific criteria. For example, the experiments cannot be ethically performed on humans, the information learned from the experiments will potentially save human lives or avert morbidity, and the suffering of the NHPs will be kept to a minimum unless doing so would adversely affect the research.

I asked the lead author, Anne Barnhill, an assistant professor in the Department of Medical Ethics and Health Policy, and senior fellow at the Leonard Davis Institute of Health Economics at the University of Pennsylvania, to expand upon her interest in animal research ethics and her thoughts on the moral status of nonhuman animals.


How did you get interested in animal research ethics?

 I first started thinking about the ethics of how we treat animals by thinking about animal agriculture.  Does the value that human individuals and groups get from animal agriculture, and from consumption practices involving animal-source food, justify confining and killing animals?  Does it justify making animals suffer, and what kind and degree of suffering is justified?  The case of animal research raises analogous ethical issues, about whether the value to humans justifies harmful treatment of nonhuman animals.

In your article, you argue that when it comes to infection challenges studies, research on all nonhuman primates should be subject to strict restrictions –that it should be allowed only when the research is critical to research programs that would save human lives, and when there are no ethical alternatives. Why does the moral status of human beings take privilege over the moral status of NHPs?

This is exactly the right spot to push on.  Why is it ethically acceptable for humans to use other animals—to make them suffer terribly and die– in order to save human life?  Saving human life, by developing new vaccines and treatments, is a profoundly important goal.  But that doesn’t make it ethically acceptable to do whatever it takes to save human life.  For example, it would not be ethically acceptable to sacrifice humans –by conscripting humans into Ebola infection challenge studies, which would have a high mortality rate, for instance – in order to save a greater number of human lives.  Why then would it be ethically acceptable to sacrifice nonhuman primates in order to save humans? What is it about human beings that would make it acceptable to do terrible things to other animals in order to save our lives?  What could possibly justify this?

The issue here isn’t just that our fellow humans deserve more help and protection from us than nonhuman primates do.  The issue is why we’re allowed to do terrible things to nonhuman primates in order to help and protect humans.  Even if we’re allowed—or even obligated—to provide more help and protection to other humans than we are to non-human primates, it doesn’t follow that we can intentionally and seriously harm non-human primates in order to benefit humans. From one perspective, this just looks like wrongful exploitation and use.

I feel deeply unresolved on this issue, actually.  I have a firm moral intuition that humans have a fundamentally different moral status than other primates, such that we should – under certain conditions – use nonhuman primates in terrible ways in order to save human life.  But I am not able to justify this intuition, in my own mind.  There is no theory that justifies it, to my satisfaction.  So I do worry that my moral intuition here is just a bias in favor of my own species– what Peter Singer dubbed “speciesism.”

There is no course of action that seems fully justifiable to me.  Letting humans die because we do not develop life-saving vaccines and treatments that we could’ve developed does not seem acceptable.  But causing nonhuman primates to suffer terribly and die also does not seem fully justifiable.  This is an uncomfortable place to be, as an ethicist.  In this situation in which no course of action seems fully justifiable to me, I err on the side of saving human lives.  (But of course this could just be another manifestation of speciesism.)

You use the term “sophisticated animals” when discussing NHPs. I assume that it is this designation that sets them apart from other animals commonly used in research, such as rats. But some animal rights activists would argue that all animals deserve the same protections. What is your response?

“Sophisticated animals” is shorthand for animals with greater cognitive, emotional and social sophistication.  You’re right that it’s meant to distinguish nonhuman primates from other animals used in research like rats, mice or guinea pigs.

In our paper, we don’t discuss the ethics of animal research in general.  But it absolutely should not get a free pass. The suffering and death that we inflict on “less sophisticated animals” matters morally.  As you point out, this suffering and death matters less than the suffering and death we inflict on nonhuman primates, according to our paper. We think that studies on “less sophisticated” animals should be preferred to experiments on nonhuman primates.

You’re right to challenge me on this point.  Why should animals with less cognitive or emotional sophistication be given less protection?  Animals who are less sophisticated can still feel pain, be injured and die, so why would harmful experiments on these animals be more justifiable?  One answer is that there is a wider range of frustrated interests that animals can have, when they are more sophisticated.  Also I do have the intuition that more sophisticated animals have higher moral status, but again that is not an intuition that I can fully justify.

Mary McDonough has a law degree and a PhD in ethics. She recently completed a fellowship at Harvard Medical School’s Center for Bioethics.

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  1. I am also a animal researcher. I am researching now ion rabbits sperm. I think this types of article stress out researchers to do well.
    Keep sharing!! I am here to follow your article.

  2. I appreciate Dr. Barnhill’s admission that her “firm moral intuition” may be nothing more than simple bigotry. I suspect that in all instances of long-held societal bigotry that those in the privileged classes have similarly had the firm moral intuition that the status quo was just; the record is replete with passionately argued opinions for why others were less deserving.

    I was less appreciative of Dr. Barnhill’s appeal to the notion that primates (more like us, of course) are more sophisticated animals with greater cognitive, emotional and social sophistication. With regard to what is normally meant by “cognition,” there isn’t good evidence that primates per se are appreciably smarter than say cetaceans or corvids; our knowledge in this area is sparse. When it comes to emotion, we are even more in the dark. I’m not sure what “social sophistication” means, but the degree of exploitation, and the prejudice toward and hatred of others humans gives me some pause when I stop and wonder whether human society is more sophisticated than the societies of bees, ants, or elephants.

    Thank-you for attending to this issue.

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