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RWalkerBeyond Primates: Research Protections and Animal Moral Value

Rebecca L. Walker

Published 2016 July in The Hastings Center Report.

Should monkeys be used in painful and often deadly infectious disease research that may save many human lives? This is the challenging question that Anne Barnhill, Steven Joffe, and Franklin G. Miller take on in their carefully argued and compelling article “The Ethics of Infection Challenges in Primates.” The authors offer a nuanced and even-handed position that takes philosophical worries about nonhuman primate moral status seriously and still appreciates the very real value of such research for human welfare. Overall, they argue for an extension and revision of the recommendations regarding chimpanzee research offered by the Institute of Medicine in 2011; the practical upshot of their argument would allow for infection challenge research for promising interventions for Ebola and Marburg virus diseases but not for smallpox or the common cold. The IOM recommendations regarding chimpanzee research put in motion an exceptionalist policy for this great ape population. Barnhill and colleagues’ proposal would enlarge the scope of that exceptionalism to embrace NHPs other than great apes. But is such exceptionalism warranted? It is not obvious to me either that the more sophisticated capacities of a species as a whole give it greater ethical protections or that less intellectually or socially sophisticated animals ought to therefore receive less protection when it comes to painful experimental interventions.