NEW YORK — When considering the use of animals in research, it is easy to find extreme views.
There are those in academic circles, such as Princeton University’s Peter Singer, who would afford some animals rights equal to those of humans, as well as anarchists who attack facilities engaged in animal testing.
Others consider animal ethics as virtually meaningless and would allow almost any experiment that could lead to benefits for humans.
Realizing that students may hold such views or have unexpressed concerns about the treatment of animals in general, more medical schools, graduate science programs and research facilities are addressing the issue of animal rights and ethics, although the total number of such courses remains low, according to a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education (“For Researchers on Animals, Ethics Training Is Sparse,” Vol. 55, Issue 4).
Franciscan Brother Daniel Sulmasy, a medical doctor and chairman of ethics at St. Vincent’s Medical Center in New York City, has noted the gradual trend. He told the Register that there was no curriculum in animal ethics when he attended medical school more than 20 years ago. Today, he teaches a course on the topic at New York Medical College in Valhalla, N.Y., which is associated with the Archdiocese of New York.
Eric Sandgren, who teaches a first-year ethics course at the University of Wisconsin School of Veterinary Medicine, said that the concept of “stewardship” is key to the proper care and use of animals. “Yes, we have laws and guidelines to follow, and we do so very carefully,” Sandgren said. “But we also want to instill a sense of personal responsibility or stewardship. When you take an animal into your program, that animal cannot care for itself, so you have to provide all the necessities because you have taken on the responsibility.”
In his ethics course, Sandgren encounters a full range of views.
“I tell them, ‘Whatever your viewpoint, consider the consequences,’” he explained. “You can’t pretend that there are no benefits to humans coming from animal research. And you can’t pretend that there are no abuses of animals in research. You have to look at both sides.”
From a Catholic perspective, Brother Sulmasy also teaches his medical students about proper stewardship of animals. The first principle he stresses is the unique dignity that man possesses because he is created in the image of God. This dignity places him apart from and above all other living creatures. The second principle, he added, is that humans must exercise a respectful stewardship over creation, with special care for animals that are endowed with life, awareness and the capacity for feelings and pain.
“We read in Genesis that God created all things as good, and therefore, we must act responsibly in regard to creation,” he noted. “Humans have stewardship over creation and that involves both rights and responsibilities.”
The Catechism of the Catholic Church provides some general principles on the treatment of animals.
“Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives. … It is contrary to human dignity to cause animals to suffer or die needlessly. It is likewise unworthy to spend money on them that should as a priority go to the relief of human misery. One can love animals; one should not direct to them the affection due only to persons” (Nos. 2417, 2418).
The key in finding the fine line between legitimate experimentation and abuse is found in the virtue of prudence, Brother Sulmasy explained.
“Today, the word ‘prudence’ carries sort of a negative connotation that would bar action, but in terms of St. Thomas Aquinas, prudence is practical moral wisdom applied to everyday situations that allows you to make right judgments about what to do now.”
In federal law, animal research falls under the Animal Welfare Act, enforced by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The act outlines general principles of humane treatment — such as providing shelter, food and ordinary care — rather than details of specific forbidden acts. Yet, Sandgren points out, the act does not cover commonly used research subjects such as birds, rats and mice. These are protected under regulations by the National Institutes of Health, which offer research grants only to those who follow their guidelines.
In addition, the American Psychological Association has “Guidelines for Ethical Conduct in the Care and Use of Animals” for use by psychologists “working with nonhuman animals.” The justification for using animals in experiments, according to the guidelines, lies in the possibility of providing for the greater good of humans and even of other animals.
Yet, like the federal code, this document is not too specific, using terms such as “reasonable expectation,” “humane” and “well-being of animals.” As with the Catholic view, much is left to the judgment or prudence of the researcher.
Experts cited in the Chronicle article explain that the proper care of research animals is not only a matter of good ethics; it also is needed for useful results. Sick, injured or distressed animals do not make good subjects.
Simple procedures such as taking blood and administering anesthesia should be done with the greatest care to limit pain and to assure accurate results, said Joy Mench, a professor of animal science who teaches ethics at the University of California, Davis.
Observing humane guidelines also helps promote research by keeping the use of laboratory animals acceptable in the eyes of the public, the article pointed out. If too many abuses are reported and publicized, the entire field of animal research may suffer.
Any program receiving federal money must have a review committee to assess the need for the research and the safety measures to be used, Sandgren said. “Every proposal or use of animals has to be presented to the committee, which runs it through the criteria,” he said.
Brother Sulmasy said that the general public’s increased sensitivity to the treatment of animals can be seen in his medical students. His course is designed to answer some of the objections students may have about conducting research in the first place as well as offer guidelines on how research should be conducted.
“Even though very few of my medical students will actually conduct animal research, it is important that they understand the value of such research to medicine in general as well as the principles of care that should be in place in animal experimentation,” he said.
“This is part of educating them to be good stewards, and good and critical readers of the medical literature,” Brother Sulmasy added. “They may never experiment with a mouse, but in their research in the medical journals they will read about this kind of research, and they can have the critical faculties to judge whether this experiment was conducted in a manner in keeping with human dignity and proper stewardship of animals.”
Stephen Vincent writes from