This is a guest post by Jamie L. Vernon, Ph.D., a research scientist and policy wonk, who encourages the scientific community to get engaged in the policy-making process I know I’m getting into controversial territory with this post, but for the sake of the safety of my fellow scientists, I feel compelled to comment. Animal-rights group PETA is kicking off a new campaign to generate opposition to animal research. The organization has created a series of billboards targeting researchers at the University of Washington. The signs will feature compelling images of animals accompanied by the statement, “If you call it “medical research,” you can get away with murder.” Now, I understand PETA’s position on this issue. Really, I do. The practice of using animals for experimental research is a controversy with a long history. However, I believe PETA has gone too far with their campaign tactics. To those people at PETA, whom I consider to be members of the progressive family, I would like to say, this is a misleading and dangerous campaign. The implication of the tag line is that scientists are using animal research in order to justify the unspeakable crime of murder. To say, “If you call it medical research,” this campaign implies that researchers condone murderous behavior. By falsely implicating scientists in this way, PETA is providing justification for moral relativist reactions. This is no different than the message used by anti-abortionists to rationalize the murder of medical practitioners. I believe this is risky language to use in this context. By continuing this exercise, PETA is putting the lives of scientists at risk. The organization should be well aware of groups like the Animal Liberation Front and Earth Liberation Front who are willing and capable of carrying out crimes that threaten the lives of scientists. This campaign might be misconstrued as support for those types of actions. Now let’s talk about the issue. According to the ads, the desired outcome is to have scientists, “Switch to a better way.” This brings up a longstanding debate over alternatives to animal research. It is one that I will not argue using my own words. Instead, I will use the words of others who have said it much more eloquently than I ever could. First, in regards to “finding another way,” according to the Dr. Hadwan Trust for Human Research, the UK’s leading non-animal medical research charity,
“There is a range of different methods that can be used to replace animal experiments. These include cell and tissue cultures, analytical technology, molecular research, post mortem studies, computer modeling, epidemiology (population studies), ethical clinical research with volunteer patients and healthy subjects, and the use of microbes such as bacteria.”
Although this may be true and has been implemented for a great deal of medical research, it does not solve one major problem for animal researchers. Nobel Laureate Peter Doherty makes the following point,
“There is no alternative to the use of animals for analyzing the complexity of immunity."
Another Nobel Prize winning scientist, Dr. Harold Varmus, Director of the National Cancer Institute has stated,
“Now, more than ever, research with laboratory animals is required to bring the benefits’ of advances in molecular genetics, neuroscience, and other highly productive fields to clinical application through the study of intact organisms.”
As much as we would like for scientists to be able to end the practice of animal research, PETA and other animal rights activists must understand that to end this work would significantly impair advances in medical research. In many cases, there are no alternatives to animal research. This is especially true for HIV/AIDS research. According to Dr. C. Everett Koop, Former U.S. Surgeon General, “We would be in absolute, utter darkness about AIDS if we hadn’t done decades’ of basic research into animal retroviruses.” For these reasons, scientists and activists must continue to strive to find an agreeable solution to this ethical dilemma without resorting to threats. At least one aspect of this dilemma involves the question of whether animals have rights. According to Tibor Macan, a Hungarian-American philosopher,
"Only those capable of deliberation and choice can have rights, since a right by definition designates an area in which someone has free jurisdiction. Unless you have the capacity to reason, how can anything be up to you to decide? The most fundamental objection to the notion that animals have rights is that only human beings have the requisite moral nature for ascribing to them basic rights. However closely humans and lower animals resemble each other, human beings alone possess the capacity for free choice and the responsibility to act ethically."
You might be surprised to find that I disagree with Machan. I believe animals do have rights. In response to Machan’s position, I cite the words of Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacque Rousseau,
“in some measure of our nature, in consequence of the sensibility with which they are endowed, they [animals] ought to partake of natural right; so that mankind is subjected to a kind of obligation even toward the brutes. It appears, in fact, that if I am bound to do no injury to my fellow-creatures, this is less because they are rational than because they are sentient beings: and this quality, being common both to men and beasts, ought to entitle the latter at least to the privilege of not being wantonly ill-treated by the former."
Here I find my justification for animal research. As you can see, while making the case for granting “rights” to animals, Rousseau uses the term “wantonly” which in my mind provides an opportunity for assessing actions that might be considered “ill-treatment.” I believe that scientific research can by no means be considered “wanton” or malicious. Federally-funded scientists must go through a complex deliberative process in order to justify research involving animals. The research must be necessary to answer a specific scientific question and alternatives to animal research must be considered. A protocol must be submitted and approved by a highly-knowledgeable oversight committee and proper facilities must be guaranteed in order to humanely house the animals. Once the decision is made to use animals, researchers must conform to the laws, regulations and policies that govern the practice. These constraints are rigorous and thorough. The NIH Office of Animal Care and Use Regulations and Standards provides the documents, standards and links to resources about appropriate laboratory animal procedures. If a researcher is found to violate these regulations, I believe that individual should be stripped of their right to use animals for research and they should be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law. As someone who has been through the process of writing animal research protocols for everything from bacteria to mice, I can tell you that it is both grueling and expensive. By no means, do scientists “wantonly” choose to conduct animal research. Given the choice between animal research and a cheaper, less labor-intensive and less controversial process, I'm confident scientists would choose the latter. Therefore, animal research is morally consistent with ascribing rights to animals. Based on the fact that I agree that animals deserve certain rights, you might wonder how I can justify my support for animal research. I rationalize animal research by considering a device that Chris Mooney often uses to explain human rationalization. It is the classic psychological tool known as the “trolley problem.” In this psychological test, you are given certain scenarios and asked what you would do. The scenarios usually involve an out-of-control trolley car hurtling down a track toward a group of five unsuspecting people. You are told that by activating a switch, you can save their lives. However, by flipping the switch, the trolley will hit one other person. What do you do? I would flip the switch. For me, the trolley car represents any number of tragic diseases, cancer, AIDS, cystic fibrosis, you name it. The five people in the scenario represent the American population. The one person who takes the hit symbolizes the animals used in animal research. It is an unpleasant choice, but one that must be made. In this case, flipping the switch has saved and will continue to save millions of peoples' lives. We can only hope that no one loses their life because of PETA's campaign. Follow Jamie Vernon on Twitter or read occasional posts at his personal blog, “American SciCo.”