Thursday, June 16, 2011

NIH's disingenuous response on chimps and bioethics

I'm mostly a supporter of the mainstream scientific institutions, but I'll take a moment here to bash the National Institute of Health and its decision to play politics with research regarding medical experimentation on chimps.

NIH wants to return "semi-retired" chimps to invasive medical experimentation, a proposal that provoked a response by several Senators demanding first a study "about the merits of continued invasive research using using chimpanzees." NIH said, okay fine, and then sent things southward.

The disingenuity is, as told by Nature, the deliberate decision to remove all ethical aspects of the research from the scope of the study. To claim you're creating an objective response to a research request that only considers the category with potential positive aspects and while excluding the category with the most potential negatives, is to be transparent. In a bad way.

What doesn't help is the argument by animal rights types that there's no medical benefit to this type of research. They're trying to avoid an ethical dilemma by claiming there's no reason to do it at all, and shutting their ears to contrary evidence. NIH isn't any better by refusing to think about ethical dilemmas.

Research defenders don't help their cause by deliberately underplaying what they want to do with the chimps. For example, they say regarding testing a Hepatitis C vaccine on chimps that "As inconveniencing tens of chimpanzees impacts the health of millions of humans, it is unethical not to use the chimp model." They don't say how they plan to examine effectiveness, but from my perspective, contracting Hepatitis C after being deliberately exposed, because a vaccine didn't work, is more than an inconvenience.

An even better example of the dilemma is the proposal to use the chimps to research treatments for Ebola. Someone needs to explain to me a humane way of infecting a chimp with Ebola. It remains a dilemma though, unless someone can explain a reason not to explore an avenue for saving human beings from Ebola.

FWIW, I'm not an animal rights type, I'm a sapientist. I'll pick a human over a chimp in some weird hypothetical matchup, but I'd rather cheat the hypo and pay some additional money so I don't have to sacrifice either. Researchers might jeer at that evasion, but their own answer is less clear cut than they think. Medical research on chimps is expensive, but only because we treat them according to modern coddling standards. Drop back to early 20th Century standards of care and willingness to euthanize unneeded specimens, and you could reach your research goals faster or cheaper. Even people who think they have a clear cut answer are actually making compromises.

Anyway, I'm not completely opposed to invasive research that doesn't hurt, scare, or medically harm chimps. Maybe the effect of public review of this issue will be to let us cheat the hypo, and inject some extra government money so we find a way to solve these medical problems without harming chimps more than we already have.

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