Is Congress capable of linking science, ethics and fiscal responsibility to pass legislation? The federal government has been spending hundreds of millions of dollars on chimpanzee research for decades. Now, with the release of a new report from the National Academies’ Institute of Medicine, we see that our tax dollars have been wasted.
The use of chimpanzees in experimentation has been a fiercely contested issue in recent months, with Members of Congress, scientists and celebrities such as James Franco and Kevin Nealon joining efforts to protect humankind’s closest genetic relatives.
The Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act has quietly racked up more than 160 co-sponsors (full disclosure: One of them is my husband, Ohio Democratic Rep. Dennis Kucinich). In September, Scientific American, the oldest and one of the most respected scientific publications in America, editorialized in support of banning the use of chimpanzees in biomedical research.
Then came the bombshell. Last month, at the request of Congress, a special committee with the IOM released its landmark report on the necessity of chimpanzee experimentation. The committee concluded that “recent advances in alternate research tools have rendered chimpanzees largely unnecessary as research subjects.” The IOM committee could not recommend continued use of chimpanzees in the research areas of hepatitis C, HIV and AIDS, cancer, Alzheimer’s disease, malaria, biodefense or any other area of current medical research.
Public health organizations and animal protection groups have applauded the committee’s findings, stating that the report is in line with the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act, which requires a swift but responsible phasing out of invasive chimpanzee experimentation.
The National Institutes of Health has agreed to the committee’s recommendations, announcing plans to set up a working group to review all active protocols involving chimpanzees to determine whether they meet these new standards.
So does the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act still need to be passed?
The answer is a resounding “yes.” The measure would mandate definitive endpoints that will guide NIH decisions and resolve gray areas. The committee’s recommendations also extend only to chimpanzees in federally funded research. There are more than 300 chimpanzees being used in privately supported research. Regardless of what the NIH working group does, these chimpanzees can continue to be used in experiments that would almost certainly be rejected under the new guidelines.
Now that the committee has made it clear that chimpanzee use is unnecessary to advance human health, it is up to Congress to take a hard look at the ethical and fiscal ramifications.
As has been reported in numerous studies, the biological, emotional and social needs of chimpanzees simply cannot be met in a captive laboratory environment.
Chimpanzees in U.S. laboratories can be kept for the bulk of their lives in cages no larger than a kitchen table.
Similar to human victims of trauma, chimpanzees suffer in laboratories, exhibiting signs of depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Moreover, it is inexcusable in our current economic climate that the NIH would continue any chimpanzee experimentation, which comes at a great cost to American taxpayers. From 2000 to 2010, more than $200 million in federal research was wasted on experiments using chimpanzees. If Congress had not called on the IOM to conduct this review, the NIH likely would have continued funding cruel and wasteful chimpanzee experimentation.
Congress must take a stand and codify these guidelines into law by passing the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act. By phasing out invasive research on chimpanzees and retiring the more than 600 federally owned and supported chimpanzees to sanctuaries, this bill would save American taxpayers an estimated $300 million over 10 years — enough money to fund Pell Grants for more than 50,000 students, 5 million malaria vaccines or nearly 200,000 units of body armor for our troops.
Passing the Great Ape Protection and Cost Savings Act would also free up NIH dollars, which could be spent on the development and use of modern, effective technologies.
And, perhaps most important, it would mean that these chimpanzees, who have suffered so much in the name of bad, misguided science would finally have the freedom they deserve.
Elizabeth Kucinich is the director of public affairs for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine.