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Is There a Role for Assent or Dissent in Animal Research?


Current regulations and widely accepted principles for animal research focus on minimizing the burdens and harms of research on animals. However, these regulations and principles do not consider a possible role for assent or dissent in animal research. Should investigators solicit the assent or respect the dissent of animals who are used in research, and, if so, under what circumstances? In this article we pursue this question and outline the relevant issues that bear on the answer. We distinguish two general reasons for respecting the preferences of research participants regarding whether they participate in research—welfare-based reasons and agency-based reasons. We argue that there are welfare-based reasons for researchers to consider, and in some cases respect, the dissent of all animals used in research. After providing a brief account of the nature of agency-based reasons, we argue that there is good reason to think that these reasons apply to at least chimpanzees. We argue that there is an additional reason for researchers to respect the dissent—and, when possible, solicit the assent—of any animal to whom agency-based reasons apply.

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1. Beauchamp TL, Ferdowsian HR, Gluck JP. Rethinking the ethics of research involving nonhuman animals: Introduction. Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 2014;35(2):91–6.

2. Gagneux P, Moore JJ, Ajit V. The ethics of research on great apes. Nature 2005;437:27–9.

3. Wendler D. Should protections for research with humans who cannot consent apply to research with nonhuman primates? Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 2014;35(2):157–73.

4. Johnson J, Barnard ND. Chimpanzees as vulnerable subjects in research. Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 2014;35(2):133–41.

5. National Institutes of Health. Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals; 2015 Mar 16; available at (last accessed 1 Mar 2015).

6. Council for International Organizations of Medical Sciences International. Guiding Principles for Biomedical Research Involving Animals; available at (last accessed 1 Mar 2015).

7. Russell WMS, Burch RL. The sources, incidence, and removal of inhumanity. In: The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique. London: Methuen; 1959:chap. 4.

8. Institute of Medicine. Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research. Washington, DC: National Academies Press; 2011; available at∼/media/Files/Report%20Files/2011/Chimpanzees/chimpanzeereportbrief.pdf (last accessed 1 Mar 2015).

9. Kahn J. Raising the bar: The implications of the IOM report on the use of chimpanzees in research. Hastings Center Report 2012;42(6) [online supplement]; available at (last accessed 1 Mar 2015).

10. World Medical Association. WMA Declaration of Helsinki—Ethical Principles for Medical Research Involving Human Subjects; 2013, at paragraph 29; available at (last accessed 1 Mar 2015).

11. For a contractarian view of animals’ moral status, see, e.g., Carruthers P. Animal mentality: Its character, extent, and moral significance. In: Beauchamp T, Frey RG, eds. The Oxford Handbook of Animal Ethics. Oxford: Oxford University Press; 2011:373.

12. Kant famously argues that we have only indirect obligations regarding animals. See Kant I. Lectures on Ethics. Heath P, Schneewind J, eds. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 1997.

13. Nozick R. Anarchy, State, and Utopia. New York: Basic; 1974, at 35–42.

14. Here our understanding of dissent is similar to that of Andrew Fenton. See Fenton A. Can a chimp say no? Envisioning chimpanzee dissent in harmful research. Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 2014;23:130–9.

15. These thoughts reflect the content of section B1 of the Belmont Report; available at (last accessed 1 Mar 2015).

16. Note that the existence of agency-based reasons does not depend on a commitment to any particular ethical theory. Consequentialists can understand agency-based reasons as special sorts of welfare-based reasons. That is, the freedom to control the course of one’s life is valuable to a person in a way that is important for her welfare. Proponents of a deontological or rights-based account, by contrast, can understand agency-based reasons as appealing to people’s right or claim to be able to decide the course of their lives.

17. See Dworkin G.Acting freely. Nous 1970;4:367–83.

18. See Frankfurt H.Freedom of the will and the concept of a person. Journal of Philosophy 1971;68:829–39.

19. See Watson G.Free agency. Journal of Philosophy 1975;72:205–20.

20. See note 5, National Institutes of Health 2015.

21. See note 5, National Institutes of Health 2015.

22. See Griffin J. Well-Being: Its Meaning, Measurement, and Moral Importance. New York: Oxford University Press; 1986.

23. See DeGrazia D. Human Identity and Bioethics. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press; 2005:chap. 3, for a development of the ideas of personal identity and self-creation.

24. For an explanation and defense of a narrative view of personal identity, see Schectman M. The Constitution of Selves. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press; 1996.

25. Thanks to Rahul Nayak for helpful discussion regarding these points.

26. As discussed above, our investigation of the nature of agency-based reasons for respect can be pursued without engaging with the literature on autonomy. However, it is worth noting that Tom Beauchamp and Victoria Wobber defend the claim that chimpanzees are capable of autonomous action. Beauchamp and Wobber specify that they are analyzing autonomy “as a psychological mechanism of decision and action” and state that “no feature in our analysis is built on a moral notion, nor is our goal to reach moral conclusions,” although they indicate that the implications of their claims about autonomy are “morally substantial.” See Beauchamp T, Wobber V.Autonomy in chimpanzees. Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 2014:117–32, at 118.

27. Tomasello M, Call J. Primate Cognition. New York: Oxford University Press; 1997.

28. Menzel EW.Chimpanzee spatial memory organization. Science 1973;182(4115):943–5.

29. Herrmann E, Wobber V, Call J.Great apes’ (Pan troglodytes, Pan paniscus, Gorilla gorilla, and Pongo pygmaeus) understanding of tool functional properties after limited experience. Journal of Comparative Psychology 2008;122:220–30.

30. Goodall J. The Chimpanzees of Gombe. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press; 1986.

31. See note 27, Tomasello, Call 1997, at chap. 3.

32. Glock HJ. Can animals act for reasons? Inquiry 2009;52(3):232–54, at 249.

33. For a discussion and review of studies on this issue, see Tomasello M. Origins of Human Communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press; 2008, section 2.4.1.

34. Call J, Hare B, Carpenter M, Tomasello M. “Unwilling” versus “unable”: Chimpanzees’ understanding of human intentional action. Developmental Science 2004:488–98.

35. Gallup Jr G. Self-recognition in primates: A comparative approach to the bidirectional properties of consciousness. American Psychologist 1977:330–8.

36. See also Gallup Jr G. Do minds exist in species other than our own? Neuroscience and Biobehaviorial Reviews 1985;9:631–41.

37. Patterson F, Gordon W. The case for personhood in gorillas. In: Cavalieri P, Singer P, eds. The Great Ape Project: Equality beyond Humanity. New York: St. Martin’s Press; 1994:71.

38. See Newton-Fisher NE. Hierarchy and social status in Budongo chimpanzees. Primates 2004;45(2):81–7.

39. See note 30, Goodall 1986.

40. See note 8, Institute of Medicine 2011.

41. See note 9, Kahn 2012.

Thanks to Tom Beauchamp for detailed written comments and Rahul Nayak for helpful discussion. Special thanks to David DeGrazia for helpful feedback and detailed written comments on multiple drafts. This work was supported, in part, by intramural funds from the NIH Clinical Center. The views expressed are our own. They do not represent the position or policy of the NIH, the NIH Department of Bioethics, the Public Health Service, or the Department of Health and Human Services.

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Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics
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