Note: The following is an invited post by Prof. Eric Sandgren, Associate Professor of Experimental Pathology in the School of Veterinary Medicine, at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. The views expressed below are his own and do not necessarily represent that of his employer.
In late October, Professor Dario Ringach of UCLA visited University of Wisconsin-Madison to speak in UW-Madison’s Forum on Animal Research Ethics (FARE). FARE is an experimental lecture series featuring speakers for, against, or in some way interested in the use of animals in research, testing, teaching, or outreach. Dr. Ringach spoke on “The ethical dilemma of animal research”. He shared some experiences and thoughts as a biomedical researcher who also has been the target of violent animal activist attacks.
I am a scientist who uses mice in research, serves as Director of an animal program, and speaks and debates frequently about animal use in research. Several of Dr. Ringach’s comments resonated with me, and I will address one of them here. He pointed out that people with absolutist views (“no animal research is ever justified”; “any animal research is always justified”) have marginalized themselves in any public discussion of this subject. Specifically, those holding a position from which no compromise is possible can only proselytize in support of their views.
Serendipitously, in his blog about Dr. Ringach’s visit posted a couple of days before the FARE presentation, a local animal activist bragged “I am an extremist. I hope you are too.” Under the heading “The Middle Ground”, he wrote: “It seems to me that very many moral issues don’t have a defensible middle ground. Here are a few examples: Nuclear war. Call me an extremist, but I’m 100% against it. Those in the ‘middle’ of the issue appear to me to be very very dangerous people.” He gives more examples, as analogies for his view that animal research is one of those categories with an indefensible middle.
Of course, for those who don’t believe that animal research and nuclear war are the same, and I’m one of them, his comparisons have no persuasive force. He’s just an extremist.
So for this activist and others with similar beliefs, any movement toward his position, any compromise, will be inadequate unless it is total. In fact, as he said aloud at the forum, unless animal research is stopped, “violence is inevitable.”
Wow. He is predicting that extremists will stop bothering with legal activity and use violence to try to accomplish their absolutist goal (we’ve seen some of that already), despite the fact that most people don’t agree with those goals. Compromise, he says, will not satisfy them. In other words, when they don’t get their way, the rest of us must pay.
At least he grants that animal research is in the “middle”. And that is true. Compare the situation of animal use before the Animal Welfare Act (first passed in 1965) with the present environment. The two are vastly different. Currently, there are extensive regulations of and restrictions on animal use. Today’s practices are firmly in the middle, between extremes. Animal researchers have demonstrated time and time again the ability to compromise. Their participation in the dialog about appropriate use of animals is justified fully.
So who, then, is qualified to engage today’s researchers in honest discussion about animal research? Certainly not the extremists, self identified or otherwise, who simply try to “convert the unenlightened”. They cannot be honest participants in a true public discussion that is directed toward understanding opposing positions and exploring compromise. The debate is unbalanced when it pits one end against part of the middle.