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BioMed Central (BMC)

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BMC Medical Ethics

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The use of great apes (GA) in invasive biomedical research is one of the most debated topics in animal ethics. GA are, thus far, the only animal group that has frequently been banned from invasive research; yet some believe that these bans could inaugurate a broader trend towards greater restrictions on the use of primates and other animals in research. Despite ongoing academic and policy debate on this issue, there is no comprehensive overview of the reasons advanced for or against restricting invasive research with GA. To address this gap, we conducted a systematic review of the reasons reported in the academic literature on this topic.


Seven databases were searched for articles published in English. Two authors screened the titles, abstracts, and full texts of all articles. Two journals specialized in animal ethics, and the reference lists of included articles were subsequently also reviewed.


We included 60 articles, most of which were published between 2006 and 2016. Twenty-five articles argued for a total ban of GA research, 21 articles defended partial restrictions, and 14 articles argued against restrictions. Overall, we identified 110 reason types, 74 for, and 36 against, restricting GA research. Reasons were grouped into nine domains: moral standing, science, welfare, public and expert attitudes, retirement and conservation, respect and rights, financial costs, law and legal status, and longer-term consequences.


Our review generated five main findings. First, there is a trend in the academic debate in favor of restricting GA research that parallels worldwide policy changes in the same direction. Second, in several domains (e.g., moral standing, and respect and rights), the reasons were rather one-sided in favor of restrictions. Third, some prominent domains (e.g., science and welfare) featured considerable engagement between opposing positions. Fourth, there is low diversity and independence among authors, including frequent potential conflicts of interests in articles defending a strong position (i.e., favoring a total ban or arguing against restrictions). Fifth, scholarly discussion was not the norm, as reflected in a high proportion of non-peer-reviewed articles and authors affiliated to non-academic institutions.


Historically, the debate over the use of animals in biomedical research has been divided between those who argue that animal research is necessary for medical progress and therefore justified, and those who favor restricting or even banning animal research. But even among proponents of animal research, there is growing concern regarding animal welfare. Indeed, many countries have introduced regulations aimed at improving the conditions under which animals are used in research. Perhaps the most notable development in the field of animal research regulation concerns the use of great apes (chimpanzees, bonobos, gorillas, and orangutans).Footnote1 In 2015, the (U.S.) National Institutes of Health joined the governments of Australia, New Zealand, Japan, and the European Union (E.U.) in banning or severely limiting experiments on chimpanzees [1].


Published version. BMC Medical Ethics, Vol. 22 (February 2021). DOI. © 2021 The Author(s).

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