By Hilary Bok


report issued yesterday by a committee of the Institute of Medicine held that most research on chimpanzees is unnecessary, and set forth stringent guidelines for any future federally funded research:

“1. The knowledge gained must be necessary to advance the public’s health;
2. There must be no other research model by which the knowledge could be obtained, and the research cannot be ethically performed on human subjects; and
3. The animals used in the proposed research must be maintained either in ethologically appropriate physical and social environments or in natural habitats.”

Specifically, while the committee did not rule out the possibility that the treatment, prevention, or control of some future disease might require research on chimpanzees, the use of chimpanzees might be warranted in only two forms of ongoing research. First, while the development of future monoclonal antibodies will not require the use of chimpanzees, “there may be a limited number of monoclonal antibodies already in the developmental pipeline that may require the continued use of chimpanzees.” Second, the committee was evenly divided on the question whether the use of chimpanzees was necessary for the development of a prophylactic Hepatitis C vaccine. In all other cases, the committee held that present biomedical research on chimpanzees is unnecessary, and that the National Institutes of Health should not support it.


The committee held that behavioral research should be performed only when the following two criteria are met:

“1. Studies provide otherwise unattainable insight into comparative genomics, normal and abnormal behavior, mental health, emotion, or cognition; and
2. All experiments are performed on acquiescent animals, using techniques that are minimally invasive, and in a manner that minimizes pain and distress.”

In addition to recommending criteria to govern present and future use of chimpanzees in research, the committee explains how these criteria should be applied to a number of case studies, all drawn from existing research. These accounts are very clear and informative; understanding them does require basic scientific literacy, but it does not require advanced degrees in the sciences. They will, I suspect, be especially useful to policy-makers and to people outside the scientific community who would like to understand why researchers in some areas find chimpanzees useful: to understand (for instance) exactly why chimpanzees are useful to research on Hepatitis C vaccines, which aspects of that research can be done using newly developed alternatives or testing in humans, and which residual needs are more difficult to meet without using chimpanzees.


This report does us all a great service. It lays out a clear and exacting set of principles to govern present and future research on chimpanzees, and explains clearly how they should be applied. This is a real advance over existing regulations, and since the Director of the NIH has announced that he accepts the committee’s recommendations, this advance is not merely theoretical. Moreover, this report allows us to distinguish the hard cases from the easy ones. There is genuine controversy over the question whether it would be right to use chimpanzees for invasive research if that research were the only way to develop a cure for some devastating disease. But there should be no controversy over the claim that if invasive research on chimpanzees is not necessary — if we could develop that cure or test that vaccine using members of some less complex species, or in vitro testing, or humans — then it should not be done. The committee’s report allows us to distinguish the two: to see when research on chimpanzees is needed if we are to achieve some important goal, and when it is not.


Some have argued that the committee should have considered the ethical issues involved in chimpanzee research in more depth, and in particular, that they should have considered the question whether intrusive research on chimpanzees can be justified at all. But that is not what they were asked to do. The committee was given a fairly limited mandate:

“The task given to the committee by the NIH asked two questions about the need for chimpanzees in research: (1) Is biomedical research with chimpanzees “necessary for research discoveries and to determine the safety and efficacy of new prevention or treatment strategies?” and (2) Is behavioral research using chimpanzees “necessary for progress in understanding social, neurological, and behavioral factors that influence the development, prevention, or treatment of disease?'”

Deciding how strictly to construe the term ‘necessary for progress’ requires some judgment about the underlying moral issues: one might describe research on rocks as ‘necessary’ for some line of research if it promised to yield any information, however trivial, that might advance that research; one would not be so quick to describe research on human infants as ‘necessary’ on those grounds. But it does not require answering the question whether intrusive research on chimpanzees can be justified at all. Had the committee tried to answer that question, it would have exceeded its mandate.


Nor is there any obvious reason to think that the committee would have done a good job of answering that question had it tried to do so. In saying this I mean no disrespect to the committee members, most of whom I do not know. (Full disclosure: I do know its chair, the Berman Institute’s Jeffrey Kahn.) For all I know, it might be possible for a committee only one of whose members is an ethicist, and most of whose members are scientists, to come up with a clear and compelling resolution of a deeply contested moral issue, just as it might, in principle, be possible for a committee made up mostly of philosophers to do first-rate bench science. But I would have thought that the odds were against it.


Philosophers love hard cases. But in real life, it’s always better when our choices turn out to be easy: when we can save both our child and three total strangers rather than having to choose; when we can keep terrorists from blowing up Manhattan without committing some unspeakable act; or when we can prevent and cure disease without doing research on chimpanzees.


By sticking to their mandate, the IOM committee lets us determine which cases are genuinely difficult, and makes it clear that hard cases in chimpanzee research are rarer than we might have thought. In so doing, they show us that we have been getting some of the easy cases wrong. This is a real service both to us and to the chimpanzees who will no longer have to be used as research subjects unnecessarily.


Hilary Bok
is the Henry R. Luce Professor of Bioethics and Moral & Political Theory. Dr. Bok received a B.A. in Philosophy from Princeton University in 1981 and her Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1991. She served as Associate Professor of Philosophy at Pomona College from 1997 to 2000. Dr. Bok was also a Laurance S. Rockefeller Visiting Fellow at the Princeton University Center for Human Values from 1994 to 1995. She has authored a book called Freedom and Responsibility. Her areas of specialization are bioethics, moral philosophy, freedom of the will, and the works of Immanuel Kant.

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