Before Neil Armstrong made his “giant leap for mankind,” a squirrel monkey named Baker became the first primate to survive a trip to space and back. Baker’s companion Able, a rhesus monkey, also made the trip but died four days later during a procedure to remove an infected medical electrode.
The respiratory support devices tested on Baker and Able, which later allowed human astronauts to go into space, were invented by a physiologist at the Navy’s School of Aviation Medicine, Roscoe Bartlett. Now, as a Republican member of the House of Representatives, Bartlett is sponsoring a bill to limit experimentation on primates.
In a recent New York Times editorial Bartlett wrote that, while he believes experiments such as the ones he was involved in were appropriate at the time, since then “our understanding of [invasive research’s] effect on primates, as well as alternatives to it, have made great strides, to the point where I no longer believe such experiments make sense – scientifically, financially or ethically.”
The bill, the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act, would not ban experiments on monkeys, like those involved in Bartlett’s early work, but it would stop invasive research on any of the so-called great apes – chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, orangutans and gibbons. Currently chimpanzees are the only great apes used for invasive research in the United States. In addition to halting these studies, the bill would require that the approximately 500 chimpanzees kept by the federal government for laboratory use be retired to sanctuaries.
The effort has gained bipartisan support in both the House and the Senate, where Sens. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., Susan Collins, R-Maine, and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt introduced a companion bill. More than 600 scientists, physicians and educators have also expressed their support.
Not all scientists are in favour, however. The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB) and the Association of American Universities have both announced their opposition. They argue that research on chimpanzees remains the most promising avenue for developing treatments for numerous health conditions, particularly hepatitis C. “While there are other animal models available to study some aspects of the acute hepatitis C infection process, chimpanzees remain the only model validated to study chronic hepatitis C,” William T. Talman, M.D., president of FASEB, wrote to legislators.
The organisations say the bill also would interfere with veterinary research that uses chimps to find cures for other chimps. While it is important to protect apes as much as possible, the organisations contend, current regulations already provide adequate safeguards.
As our closest animal cousins, as well as the great apes most used in research, chimpanzees get most of the attention in this debate. Australia, the European Union, Japan and New Zealand have already banned or severely limited experiments involving the animals. A 2003 study by researchers at Wayne State University found that 99.4 per cent of the most critical DNA sites are identical in human and chimp genes. Some scientists maintain that chimps should be classified under the “homo” genus along with humans, which would make them the only other species in our immediate genetic family. It is this evolutionary proximity that makes experimentation on chimps both so scientifically attractive and so ethically troublesome.
Both sides have valid arguments. Bartlett is undoubtedly correct that apes held in labs for experimentation can be physically and emotionally traumatized. Research scientists point out that if we ban experimentation on apes, we will inevitably need more experimentation on humans. Somebody has to go first.
The question comes down to this: Are we ready and willing to insist upon human volunteers, who can give informed consent, in place of chimpanzees and other great apes, who are draftees in our march toward scientific progress?
It’s a tough call. After we ban experimentation on apes, we will doubtless hear demands to ban it on monkeys and other primates – or on all mammals. I, for one, am not prepared to become a vegan, and neither are most of the other 7 billion humans in the world. For better or worse, we are the planet’s dominant vertebrates. We didn’t get to the top by playing Mr. Nice Guy to all the other species.
Animal experimentation will therefore be with us for a long time to come. Lab rats continue to provide us with a plethora of useful information about the workings of our own minds and bodies. Meanwhile, new research using pigs and baboons may soon make it possible for pig organs to be successfully transplanted into human beings, drastically cutting wait times for organ transplants. And, of course, pigs, along with cows, chickens and many other animals, continue to be important human food sources.
But I’m ready to sign on to the Bartlett legislation. If a treatment is advanced enough to be tested on an unknowing, terrified and dangerously large ape, it ought to be advanced enough to be tested on a human volunteer, typically at very low initial doses. If we can’t deliberately infect great apes with diseases to study the infection process and use the knowledge to devise cures, we are going to have to devise better testing and screening protocols involving human subjects. These changes are going to slow down our acquisition of new knowledge, at least to some degree. But a greater respect for our closely-related fellow creatures will make us more humane – and, in a sense, more human.