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There’s Nothing Ethical About Experimenting On Monkeys

By Erin Sharoni, Contributing Opinion Writer
Erin Sharoni is a second-year Master’s in Bioethics student at Harvard Medical School.

The controversy around experiments involving infant monkeys and their mothers in professor Margaret S. Livingstone’s lab at Harvard Medical School highlights the importance of education at the intersection of science and ethics. It also calls our attention to a very specific set of injustices happening within our own community.

As a student in the Master of Bioethics program at Harvard Medical School, I am deeply invested in the ethics underpinning the research on which we base our medical advancements. It’s clear that other people are, too. Recently, tens of thousands of individuals, including members of the Harvard community, have signed petitions and letters that get it right: Despite her statements to the contrary, Livingstone’s research is cruel, unnecessary, and morally indefensible.

The backlash against invasive research on primate infants and their mothers is no surprise. Such research conflicts with some of our strongest beliefs. Our sense of how we ought to behave — the normative component of ethics — is informed by deeply ingrained values stemming from culture, religion, our families, and more. The belief that we should not harm others is a value that’s widely accepted and reflected in law. But our actions and laws sometimes exclude animals from this sphere of moral consideration, even though they should not.

It turns out that Americans are concerned with how animals are treated in all settings, including scientific research. According to Gallup, 67 percent of Americans surveyed indicated they’re “Very/Somewhat Concerned” with the treatment of animals used in research. Only three percent of respondents said they believed animals need minimal protections from harm “since they are just animals.”

That we love and care about animals is no surprise. They’re members of our families. We’ve formed core childhood memories with them during visits to parks, on camping trips, and in classrooms.

Why, then, do we accept a status quo that says it is acceptable to harm animals in scientific research so long as there’s a small chance it might benefit humans?

Many gifts given to us by scientific research have come at the expense of the subjects involved in that research, some of whom have been human, the majority of whom have been nonhuman, and nearly all of whom can suffer and feel pain. Still, according to the National Institutes of Health, an estimated 95 percent of drugs proven safe and effective in animal models fail during human clinical trials. Both humans and animals are harmed by such failures.

The claim that Livingstone’s current research is scientifically justifiable has been criticized by individuals with far more expertise in primatology, neurobiology, and bioethics than myself, and I will only point you to their well-documented dissenting views.

It should be clear: It is a mistake to question the credibility of their views by classifying them as emotional appeals. We cannot and should not disconnect one of the defining features of humanity — our capacity for empathy — from our moral sensibilities. As bioethicists-in-training at HMS, we’re taught to interrogate our emotional biases and carefully consider them in decision-making — not to silence or dismiss them.

Where would we be if we stuffed our emotions into our pockets when witnessing suffering and injustice? Bearing witness to suffering has inspired critical social change in response to atrocities like slavery, apartheid, and the Holocaust. And, as I’ve argued before, excluding emotion from research does not make for good science. Moreover, it’s been demonstrated that people who care for animals in research labs suffer severe mental anguish. There is harm in ignoring emotion and violating one’s own moral values.

But the harder question we need to answer is: Even if this research is beneficial to humanity, should we be doing it?

Livingstone’s research is legal, but legality is not morality. We can all easily recall many instances in which what was legal was shockingly immoral. Is human exceptionalism in scientific research different from the other forms of legalized exceptionalism that have hurt vulnerable groups?

Neither the awards and large sums of funding that Dr. Livingstone’s research on monkeys has received, nor its approval by Harvard’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, indicates it is ethical or even necessary. IACUCs are self-regulating bodies whose standards vary by institution and based on the individual composition of each IACUC. This does not make those involved in this research immoral people. Instead, it evidences a broken system that devalues the moral worth of nonhuman animals.

Alternative technologies to replace animals in research are in development, but they aren’t yet fully sufficient. This shouldn’t hold us back. It is intellectually dishonest to use moral arguments to justify technological and scientific insufficiencies. Our present (and seemingly temporary) inability to completely replace monkeys with non-sentient technologies does not make their exploitation ethically justifiable — not even when it might help humans.

In the meantime, we can commit to urgently advancing those replacement technologies. We can also commit to research frameworks that emphasize non-maleficence to better protect animals. Harvard prides itself on being a leader, and this is a place where it can lead.

Being critical of institutional practices is not a rejection of the institution or its constituents. As a proud Harvard Medical School student, I aim to elevate both myself and our school. Just as I push myself to question my long-held beliefs, so too should the place where I learn. We’re fortunate to be surrounded by abundant intellect and innovation. Here in the Harvard ecosystem, viable alternatives to animal research are being developed. Sometimes, we neglect to question the status quo. At a leading institution like ours, that’s just not good enough.

Erin Sharoni is a second-year Master’s in Bioethics student at Harvard Medical School.

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