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Ethical Debate: Animal rights, human health, and government understanding of science

Image from HumaneSociety.org

I am, in general, a supporter of animal rights. Animal abuse sickens me, and I really believe Ghandi’s famous quote that “you can judge a society by how it treats its weakest members”. That said, while it’s disturbing to see a rabbit which has gone blind from exposure to a potential new shampoo, I’d rather have a rabbit go blind than a human child. More importantly, while it is troubling to infect a chimpanzee with a disease in order to study how to cure that disease, such research unquestionably saves human lives.  That’s why I was surprised to learn about the Great Ape Protection Act.

This proposed law will ban all invasive medical tests on great apes. While some animal rights groups are cheering, medical researchers are concerned. There are many human diseases that are presently being studied in laboratory animals, including AIDS and malaria, and banning this research would set the search for a cure back immeasurably. More troubling is the effect that an ape research ban would have on Hepatitis C studies.

According to the CDC, 3.2 million Americans suffer from Hepatitis C. Though some diseases can be tested in other ways, chimpanzees are the primary model system for Hep C, (other model systems, such as mice, are very early in development) which means that banning great ape research is basically equivalent to saying that scientists aren’t allowed to cure Hep C for a long time.

A comparison between co-sponsors of the Great Ape Protection Act and the Viral Hepatitis and Liver Cancer Control and Prevention Act of 2009 (which calls for increased Hep C vaccine research) shows that 16 congressman are simultaneously saying “You have to find a cure for Hepatitis C very quickly” and “You aren’t allowed to use the only functional model system to develop a cure for Hepatitis C”. All are Democrats. These represent only co-sponsors. It is likely that more people would be revealed as hypocrites if every member of congress actually voted on this bill- and many more can be revealed now by examining co-sponsors of other hepatitis C legislation.

Arguments made for the law imply that great ape research is the Wild West, and that mad scientists torture chimpanzees for their sociopathic pleasure. This is simply not the case. As an open letter to Congress signed by numerous scientific organizations states, “scientists take research using non-human primates extremely seriously, and multiple protections exist in law and through accreditation to ensure these animals are well-treated and used with respect.”

Here are some other facts about this proposed law.

-It not only bans the use of apes to find cures to deadly human diseases, but also the use of apes to find cures to deadly ape diseases. You can bet that many more gorillas will die from this strain of malaria than would die from research to cure it. The same is true of the chimpanzee strain of ebola.

The phrasing of the law includes gibbons as great apes. This is news to primate biologists who have long considered them a separate group.

Though there are many excellent scientific organizations that oppose this law, I want to refer you specifically to the statement put out by the American Academy for the Advancement of Science, one of the most prestigious scientific societies in the world.

I know that we have many animal rights activists among our readers, and I invite you (as always) to join in the discussion. However, I fervently believe that If the Great Ape Protection Act becomes law, it will be terrible news for humans as well as apes. Animal rights are extremely important, but human lives are more important.

Also, while this discussion is primarily about the ethics of saving human lives through research, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Dr. Free Ride’s recent post about how the lives of human researchers are threatened more directly by animal rights activists, PZ Myers recent list of overzealous animal rights activists,  and Orac’s description of a frightening new tactic used by some of them. Whatever our views are on the ethics of animal research, surely we can all agree that threatening researchers and their children is a completely unacceptable way of accomplishing goals… right?

Do you think that it is acceptable to protect animal rights at the expense of human lives?

Do you think that saving human lives justifies experimenting on animals?

Are rules that protect animals in laboratory studies good enough the way they are? Are they too powerful already?