I'm a college student studying both biology and the humanities. In one course, I engage in conversation with scientists who are doing groundbreaking work for the FDA and NIH (this work often involves animal testing).
In another class, I'm studying the ethics of how animals are treated in the food industry, in zoos and as pets. This dichotomy of course content has afforded me a unique perspective. In particular, I found myself wondering whether it is ethical to test on nonhuman primates, our closest relatives.
As someone who understands both the scientific and ethical implications of testing on animals, I urge you to think "medical progress, yes; animal abuse, no."
This dilemma has two radical views. On one hand, there are many scientists, research funding organizations such as the NIH, regulatory agencies such as the FDA, and numerous companies that favor testing on animals. They argue that while not ideal, testing on other primates is essential for scientific advancement and to prevent human suffering. After all, they say, people are more important than animals.
On the other side, animal activists say that primates, in particular, are so similar to us that only a barbarian would subject them to a life of surgeries, shocks, isolation, and eventually sacrifice.
Therein lies the paradox. Sharing 99 percent of our DNA with nonhuman primates is what makes them sought-after research subjects, but it is also what causes the moral dilemma of harming them. We acknowledge that animals feel pain because we consider their bodily makeup and responses to be similar enough to ours to use them as tests subjects for our benefit.
A middle-of-the-road argument is that animals should be given ethical consideration and only be used in experimentation when a technological alternative is not available. The National Center for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research (NC3Rs) calls for researchers to use the many alternatives to animal subjects and, where resources fall short, to work on developing new technologies.
The available techniques include magnetoencephalography (MEG), transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) and noninvasive imaging techniques that help us understand diseases and the needs of patients who suffer from neurological disorders.
Also, the proponents of finding animal alternatives point out that primates aren't us. Although they're are genetically similar to humans, they don't respond to disease and medication in the same way. The difference in responses between model animals and how humans actually respond could mean that testing on animals is a waste of lives, resources and time.
Today in the United States, nearly 55,000 nonhuman primates are used in testing annually. A recent scandal in a UCSF research facility brought to light the perils of testing on primates.
Petra, a female rhesus macaque, was euthanized in a research laboratory at UCSF in the fall of 2010 after a federal inspector deemed her treatment inhumane.
I can see the importance of finding cures to diseases such as Alzheimer's, as it is a disease that has plagued my own family. But I also find it difficult to justify sacrificing primates who are physical and socially so similar to us.
Nonhuman primates should only be used in tests that have no nonprimate alternatives. Also, researchers should be working to find viable alternatives. I urge you spend a few moments researching where your tax dollars go.
While your money should go toward finding cures for diseases such as Alzheimer's, it should, above all, support humane research that truly produces the greatest good for the greatest number, including our primate relatives.
Emily Jorgens is a Duke University student who attended Miramonte High and is a resident of Orinda.