Score one for dialogue

On Tuesday evening students and faculty of UCLA filtered through security for a unique opportunity to listen to a spectrum of opinions on the ethics and science of animal research at an event co-organized by campus groups Bruins for Animals and Pro-Test for Science.

Six expert panelists had 15 minutes each to share their perspectives, followed by an hour for the audience to pose questions through moderator David Lazarus of the Los Angeles Times.  As a proud donor to ASPCA, and an individual directly benefiting from animal research with an insulin pump for his diabetes, Lazarus declared himself to be a living embodiment of the debate.

The six panelists were:

  • Janet D. Stemwedel, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Philosophy, San Jose State University.
  • Ray Greek, M.D., President of Americans for Medical Advancement
  • Colin Blakemore, FMedSci FRS, Professor of Neuroscience, Oxford University
  • Niall Shanks, Ph. D., Professor of History and Philosophy of Science, Wichita State
  • Dario L. Ringach, Ph.D., Professor of Neurobiology and Psychology, University of California, Los Angeles Professor
  • Robert Jones, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, Department of Philosophy, California State University, Chico

Dr. Jentsch (UCLA Professor of Psychology and Behavioral Neuroscience) introduced the evening by reflecting that academia has always been rife with colleagues who disagree, but who approach the issue with a reasoned exchange of ideas.  “Both groups claim to promote free and open dialogue about the issue of animal rights, something which Jentsch said first prompted him to approach Bruins for Animals about organizing a discussion,” reported the Daily Bruin.  Co-founders of Bruins for Animals thanked everyone for their participation.

Dr. Ringach led off the panel with a strong statement about the innumerable contributions of animal research to human health, knowledge and progress.  One hundred years ago, “Life expectancy in the US was less than 50 years; it is now close to 80….Animal research has contributed to many of these advances.”  He listed medicines for premature babies, vaccinations to eradicate and inoculate against disease, and blood thinners for heart disease all as life-saving treatments developed with the help of animals.  He also stressed the importance of basic research as a compliment to clinical research.  He explained that it is impossible to be certain where the next breakthrough will come from, but that science is a continuum with each study building on previous studies to solve the mysteries of life and disease.

Drs. Shanks and Greek did not directly refute advances made with the help of animals, suggesting instead that they could have been made without animals.  They further made assertions that toxicological responses in animals are poorly predictive of similar effects in humans, and that only humans are worthwhile subjects of research to benefit humans.

Dr. Blakemore began with a history of the controversy over animal research, concluding that it must be humane, responsible, and well-regulated to be accepted.  He asked people to reflect on whether biological researchers alone among scientists truly are ignorant and antiquated, stubbornly and maliciously clinging to archaic scientific methods rather than pushing the boundaries of their field with state-of-the-art technologies.  He described his experience as the Executive at the U.K. Medical Research Council during which time funding for human research well exceeded that dedicated to studies on animals.

Dr. Stemwedel asked people to consider that scientists also strive to be ethical, and that the characteristic is not monopolized by animal rights activists.  She explained that believing we have greater obligations to our fellow humans certainly does not mean that we have carte blanche to treat animals however we want.  Dr. Blakemore pointed out that researchers actively develop and enthusiastically take advantage of alternatives to animals in research because all agree that it is not ideal.  Thus far such alternatives are valuable in combination with judicious use of animals, but cannot fully supplant it.

The ethical arguments are more shaded than the facts of science.  Dr. Stemwedel proposed that humans are special because we have moral capability.  She noted that while there are historic examples of societies treating human populations in ways seen as egregious today but considered moral at the time, the difference being that even then the people they subjugated demonstrated their moral ability, while nonhuman animals cannot.  There was a general agreement that moral boundaries are dynamic and can change, and it is up to society as a whole to decide what it is that we feel comfortable doing.

Dr. Jones contended that the difference between humans and other animals is a false dichotomy, arguing that there is no defensible reason for speciesism.  He claimed that the differences between species are analogous to superficial and amoral differences within species, like race, sex, and religion.  Rather than humanity, the animal rights side of the panel agreed on sentience – the ability to feel pain – as being the appropriate attribute for drawing the line for experimentation.  Dr. Jones contested using moral ability as the place to draw the line because people who are amoral due to mental impairment (people who do sometimes participate in invasive and risky clinical trials with the consent of their guardian) are nevertheless appropriately precluded from terminal research by their human status, rather than being grouped with other (amoral) animals.

There were a number of areas of common ground between panelists.  For example, it was asserted that of all the reasons humans use animals, biomedical research is the only one whose aim is to improve humanity, that it is imperative to abolish any undue suffering and to develop alternatives, as well as, that it is crucial to further this dialogue, and to condemn threats and violence.

Upon being asked what changes he would like to see, Dr. Jones’ reply was three-fold: that biomedical scientists be educated in the ethics of animal research, that the Animal Welfare Act be extended to cover all vertebrates (as in the U.K.), and for increased transparency in research institutions – that they open up in service to informing the public about the truth.

On the pro-research side Dr. Ringach closed by calling for more discourse, with an inspirational call to all scientists to speak out and to explain their research, and for granting institutions to publically support them.  He also pointed out a fork in the road for factions in the animal rights movement, urging that we proceed together with no tolerance for campaigns of violence and intimidation.  Coordinators on both sides faced vehement criticism for organizing this discussion, and in a show of supreme courage and dedication, they persevered to pull off a productive evening.

The event was conducted in a collegial spirit with a respectful audience and panelist members who want to make progress on this issue listening thoughtfully to one another. The evening was a breakthrough success from all perspectives.  A report on the event in Nature emphasized the overriding sentiment that “Scientists in the United States must publicly discuss the merits of animal research if they are to win over the public and neutralize the threat from activists….  ‘The only way to breakthroughs is to have the courage to be open,’ Blakemore told Nature.” We all hope to carry this forward towards future advances.

In summary, the debate will go on, but, for now, we can score one for dialogue.


Megan Wyeth

One thought on “Score one for dialogue

  1. Yes, of course the Animal Welfare Act should cover all vertebrates. Glad there is some agreement on that.

    I don’t understand why the anti-vivisectionists don’t get a lot more exercised about the use of animals as food: a whole lot more animals are used as food than for research, and there are a wealth of alternatives to animal eating, unlike animal testing. Historically, many if not most anti-vivisectionists have been meat-eaters and been partial to cute animals.

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