2013 was a tough year for science in Italy, witnessing the theft by animal rights extremists of animals from a medical research laboratory in Milan and the passing by the Italian Parliament of a law that threatens the future of medical research in Italy. But it has also been the year when scientists in Italy have started to push back in earnest against the tide of ignorance and disinformation, with Pro-Test Italia holding rallies in Milan and Rome, while thousands of Italian scientists – led by the country’s largest medical research charities – wrote to the government to ask them to stop the damaging legislation, and more than 10,000 scientists signed a petition to the EU commission asking them to take action against the dangerous Italian legislation.
As 2013 came to a close this ongoing crisis took an unexpected turn, as news emerged that animal rights extremists had harassed and threatened a seriously ill student named Caterina Simonsen who had spoken out in favour of animal research.
Caterina is battling four rare genetic diseases and must constantly wear an oxygen mask. She’s affected by a respiratory failure due to a neurologic disease that damages both of her phrenic nerves. Moreover, her breathing ability is further reduced by an alpha 1-antitrypsin deficiency, she’s thrombophilic and immunodeficient, and she developed a prolactinoma, a benign tumor of the pituary gland. For this reason Caterina started to document her life, both in hospital and at home, with photos and videos that she shares on her Facebook profile. In a post on December 21, she noted:
Caterina shared the photo on the Facebook pages of Pro-Test Italia and “A Favore della Sperimentazione Animale”. She was motivated to do this because animal rights activists, in particular the Partito Animalista Europeo (PAE – on of Italy’s largest animal rights groups), have been attacking the Fondazione Telethon, a leading Italian research charity that focuses on developing new therapies for genetic disorders.
Over the next few days she received hundreds of angry responses and over 30 death threats from animal rights extremists, which have been turned over to authorities.
One respondent wrote, “You could die tomorrow. I wouldn’t sacrifice my goldfish for you.” Another said: ”If you had died as a child, no one would have given a damn.”
In response to the harsh criticism, Caterina made a video (http://youtu.be/RbTfRMoj19w and http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NbwBuHHC-PA) that was played repeatedly on Italian television networks. ”I have received messages saying that the lives of 10 rats are more important than mine. I don’t know what planet these people live on and who raised them,” she said, breaking into tears. ”I am alive thanks to doctors, to medicines and to animals who had to be sacrificed.” She said she wanted to become a veterinarian “to help save animals”.
In her videos and a subsequent interview with an Italian newspaper Caterina noted the serious deficiencies in science education in the Italian school system, resulting in a very poor standard of public debate on scientific issues and bad decisions by Italian politicians. She highlighted the Stamina case, where in 2013 the Italian parliament backed funding for a clinical trial of an extremely dubious stem cell therapy being promoted by a psychologist named Davide Vannoni (later blocked by the Italian Health Minister on the advice of a committee of stem cell experts).
Caterina is a vegetarian and a veterinary student who loves animals (it’s even possible to see a dog sleeping on her bed while she records the video), but this wasn’t enough for some animal rights activists who commented on her video with various kinds of insults and even death threats. Their action sparked a quick and unanimous response from many other Italians: No one can use those kinds of words against Caterina. Soon Caterina’s Facebook page and Youtube videos were flooded with messages of support, and a dedicated twitter hashtag was created, #iostoconcaterina (#iamwithcaterina). Soon many patients and scientists followed Caterina’s example, posting a picture of themselves expressing the necessity for animal research on the Facebook page A Favore della Sperimentazione Animale, where Caterina had posted her picture, while tens of thousands of Italians showed their support for Caterina by tweeting #iostoconcaterina.
This way the topic spread through the Internet and started to attract journalists: by 27 December Caterina photos and videos appeared on the TV screen and during the news and on the newspapers (e.g. here, here, here and here) with the story subsequently being covered by media in many other countries, including the UK, Germany, Australia and USA. Many high-profile personalities expressed their support for the young girl, including Matteo Renzi, leader of Italy’s Democratic Party and a likely future prime minister, and the film director Gabriele Muccino. A few days later in an opinion poll of over 2,000 people on the website of the leading newspaper Corriere Della Sera, 80% answered “yes” to the question “Do you support the testing on animals for therapeutic purposes?” It seems that somehow the public support to the cause of medicine and scientific research was already there, and that Caterina’s courage has brought it to the surface.
The reaction of the Italian animal rights groups was mixed, some eventually condemned the harassment and threats against Caterina, but others reacted more negatively. The PAE – which is a very strong supporter of Davide Vannoni’s dubious stem cell therapy – retreated into conspiracy theory, even suggesting that Caterina does not actually exist!
Today, Caterina is in hospital because of her illness and even if she wants to thanks all the people that support her, she reminds them she’s not looking for fame so asks the journalists and the other people to respect her privacy.
As 2014 begins we hope that Caterina’s decision to speak out will spur more supporters of science and medical progress in Italy to make their own voices heard, her bravery has created an opportunity for the Italian scientific community to decisively turn the tide against ignorance and extremism.
Noi stiamo con Caterina!
Speaking of Research
Interview that Caterina gave to an Italian newspaper, published 27 Dec 2013