The following editorial appeared recently in the Chicago Tribune:
Chimpanzees are the closest living relatives to human beings, a distinction that has not necessarily been a blessing to them. Because of their strong genetic resemblance to people, chimps have been used extensively in biomedical research on human diseases. It's been helpful to humans — and harmful to these primates, who often pay with their health or their lives.
There is good news for them, though. Last year, the National Institutes of Health announced it would suspend new funds for research on chimpanzees and established strict new conditions for such studies. In September, it said it would retire 110 of the chimps it has used for research.
The decision, said director Francis Collins, was "based on the way science has evolved and our great sensitivity to the special nature of these remarkable animals." Imagine that: Being closely related to humans finally paid off.
The NIH decisions came in response to a 2011 report by the federal Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences, which concluded that "most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary."
Said Jeffrey Kahn, who headed the investigation, "The committee concluded that research using animals that are so closely related to humans should not proceed unless it offers insights not possible with other animal models and unless it is of sufficient scientific or health value to offset the moral costs. We found very few cases that satisfy these criteria."
Even Congress is taking notice. A House bill offered by Rep. Roscoe Bartlett, R-Md., to phase out invasive experiments on great apes has attracted 174 co-sponsors from both parties, and a Senate counterpart was recently approved by the Environment and Public Works Committee. The legislation may have trouble gaining priority in the post-election lame-duck session, but in that case, it will assuredly be back next year.
The shift has generated opposition from such groups as the National Association for Biomedical Research and the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology, which point out that such research has yielded such advances as hepatitis A and B vaccines and that the new restrictions could prevent experiments on lethal new diseases.
The legislation would not forbid all such research — merely impose tight requirements for it. But the experimental biology group says the new hurdles would be "unworkable at best and life threatening at worst."
Expert criticism like that should not be ignored. If proponents of chimpanzee experimentation can offer a sensible alternative that permits research only where it is truly vital, Congress should be open to their suggestions.
But the basic goal of eliminating most experiments on these intelligent creatures is a sound one. The rest of humanity has already recognized as much. "The United States is the only country in the world to continue invasive research on chimpanzees," reports the Humane Society of the United States. Polls indicate most Americans favor a ban.
It's not too much to ask that the government put a stop to invasive experiments on chimpanzees except when they are absolutely necessary. In fact, it's the least we can do for a cousin.