Personhood for Chimps? | Notes from the Planet Earth

Recently filed lawsuits, in three New York counties, have the potential to interrupt a variety of biomedical research programs. These lawsuits, having the goal of establishing “legal personhood” for chimpanzees, were filed by a group called the Non-human Rights Project (NhRP) on behalf of four chimps, two of which were confined in a research facility. From the perspective of one who has long been impressed by the cognitive abilities of the higher primates, dolphins and whales, there is definite merit in considering treating these intelligent animals more humanely. In 1977 I had the good fortune to meet Jane Goodall and talked at length with her about her field research on free-living chimps in Africa. She especially impressed me with her strong arguments against any confinement of these creatures by humans. In this vein some have even argued that keeping such highly evolved animals confined against their will for human purposes is tantamount to slavery. Meanwhile PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) has been campaigning for many years to have research with live animals banned altogether. While an older organization, the Animals Legal Defense Fund (ALDF) has grown more prominent in recent years with chapters in many law schools, indicative of the increased attention being given to the legal issues surrounding our treatment of non-human animals.

But considered from the perspective of one who has used a variety of captive animals in biomedical research, I can certainly understand the dismay of those whose productive research using chimpanzees may end if these cases are decided in favor of the chimps. In response to these recent lawsuits, members of the National Association of Biomedical Research are gearing up to challenge any laws constraining primate research which is often carried out for the purpose of either learning more about brain physiology or developing vaccines for ultimate use in treating humans for difficult-to-treat infectious diseases.

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