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Matthew Kinsella


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Given that chimpanzees are endangered, is it ethical to use them in biomedical research?

Chimpanzees are distributed throughout Equatorial Africa, occurring from southern Senegal across the forested belt north of the Congo River to western Uganda and western Tanzania. According to the World Wildlife Foundation, current estimates for the wild population range from 150,000 to 250,000 individuals. The largest populations of chimpanzees occur in central Africa, mainly Gabon, Democratic Republic of Congo, and Cameroon. Sadly the populations that once habituated Gambia, Burkina Faso, Benin, or Togo are no longer found.

One of the greatest threats to the long-term survival of chimpanzees and other great apes is habitat loss. Between 2000 and 2010 Africa lost over 3 million hectares of its forests. Much of this loss occurred within the chimpanzee range, including the equatorial forest belt. In 2007, the International Union of Conservation of Nature’s classification of chimpanzees satisfied the criteria for ranking as Endangered based on a projected future rate of decline of 50% in three generations (from 1970-2030).

On top of facing habitat loss by logging operations, illegal hunting, and disease, chimpanzees have to worry about being captured for use in biomedical research. Luckily the demand for chimpanzees has been diminishing because many scientists agree that they are no longer necessary for understanding most diseases today. Either they simply don’t prove useful or better alternatives exist. However one exception remains, Hepatitis C (spread by blood-to-blood contact). Today, an estimated 4 million people are infected by Hepatitis C in the United States, and at least 130 million worldwide. Around 350,000 people around the world die from Hepatitis C-induced liver failure each year. There is still no vaccine, and chimpanzees are the only known non-human animals capable of being infected by the virus. No other animal models exist.


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    May 9 2012: It is like asking: "Is it right to kill two whales to save one panda". Why is testing or rats valid? If that becomes invalid, why is testing on worms valid? If that becomes invalid, and so on. Here we come to the debate of whether testing at all is valid. Most of these test go through several stages before they get tested on chimps, if they get tested on chimps at all. Plus I hope I don't have to mention that all tests are done with the prospect of not harming the animal in any way. Of course this happens, because any experiment is bound to go wrong.

    If we were to clone a mammoth and that mammoth was the best test-subject after humans. Would it be okay to start test procedures? If the possible result is that millions (if not billions counting future generations) to be better of through this research?

    We could go in a different direction: Why are we still eating meat? Why are we still eating plants? Aren't plants alive? Do they not have the right to live? Even though they, like most animals, are not considered rational.

    Plus let me add: Most chimpanzees are born in captivity, like their parents, and probably like their grandparents. Those being "kidnapped" are not being kidnapped by the scientific community. So instead of condemning progress, why not condemn the people that kidnap them? Because last time I checked most chimps in captivity live much longer lives that those in the wild.
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      May 9 2012: I'm not sure if I understand your position completely. Are you suggesting that questioning testing on a particular animal leads to an introduction of a cascading slippery slope argument? Or, are you making the slippery slope argument yourself?

      Taking such an argument to its logical end you could easily say 'why have ethics at all?'. To which someone might respond: Because the alternative is nihilism and thus is self contradictory. Attributing ethical value is simply what we do as a species. Boundaries are set within this 'ethical gradient' by values held by our culture. Why do we eat plants? Because we tend to value sustenance over starvation. Why meat? It tastes good. Why not dogs? Because they are our friends. And on and on.

      Again, maybe we agree, but I'm not sure.

      To your last paragraph, it's interesting that you qualify this 'progress' by suggesting that a longer lifespan is the basis for some kind of net positive gain for the animals in question. Does someone in a long term care facility necessarily have a higher quality of life than someone who suffers an early death simply because they happened to live longer?

      I think condemnation of one community or another completely misses the point. We have a set of information: Chimpanzees are tested on, they are somewhat intelligent creatures, they are tested on in captivity, they have no choice in the matter, there are tangible medical benefits to this testing, etc. However, the ethical imperative can only be discussed in the context of what to do now with that set of information. The scientific community could just as well decide that any chimps they come across should be let go into a wild habitat and that testing should cease. Who captured them doesn't really have any bearing on the conversation.

      I'm not making an argument for or against testing, just pointing out that this kind of thinking dodges the issue completely.

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