Change is afoot in the controversial world of animal research, but it needs to be guided by an adequate ethical framework.
The EPA has just announced that it will dramatically reduce and eventually eliminate studies testing chemicals on mammals. The Veterans Administration is considering stopping invasive canine research. Early this decade, the NIH ended its funding of biomedical research involving chimpanzees.
Do these changes reflect a coherent evolution of the policy? Is there a principled framework that can help us decide what types of animal research – or which particular animal studies – are morally justified?
Since the late 1970s, human research ethics have been guided by the principles of the Belmont Report — respect for persons, beneficence and justice. Animal research ethics needs a relatively robust touchstone.
For more than half a century, the regulation of animal research has followed the “3 Rs” advanced by William Russell and Rex Burch: replacing animal models when possible, reducing the number of animal subjects to what is statistically required and refine techniques to minimize subjects. ‘ pain and distress.
Although this is a great step forward in protecting animal welfare, the 3Rs are outdated. An adequate framework would respond to five developments over the past few decades: growing public concern about animal welfare, as evidenced by growing interest in meatless food options and the proliferation of animal welfare groups; advances in the scientific study of animal cognition and behavior, which have shed light on their mental complexity and increased their respect; the emergence and maturation of animal ethics as a scholarly discipline; growing concerns among scientists about the poor translation of successful animal studies of drugs into effective use in humans; and advances in the science of alternatives to animal research.
Sixty years after the seminal work of Russell and Burch was published, the 3Rs are clearly incomplete. They have no method to determine whether a proposed animal study is worth conducting in light of its prospects for social benefits as well as its costs and risks. They also lack a comprehensive animal welfare protection program, including an upper limit on the harm animals can endure and an expectation to meet their basic needs.
In light of the aforementioned developments and the inadequacy of the 3Rs as an ethical framework, it is not surprising that public support for animal research in the United States has declined in recent years – now hovering around 50%. of acceptance.
The public is divided. Moreover, many believe that the biomedical research and animal welfare communities have hopelessly incompatible perspectives. The former, for the most part, see animal research as a necessary component of biomedical progress and believe that harm inflicted on animals in research is ethically defensible. The latter is more skeptical about the benefits of animal research and the justification for using animals in ways that cause them serious harm. Given the perception of an impassable chasm separating these perspectives, one might think that disagreements over the ethics of animal research inevitably boil down to a struggle for political power.
We do not agree.
Reasonable representatives of the biomedical research community, the animal welfare community, and the general public can agree on two fundamental values that underlie the ethics of animal research: social benefit, appropriate end animal research; and animal welfare, which limits the means allowed to pursue this end.
From this common ground, and recognizing the need for a stronger guide than the 3Rs, we have developed an ethical framework of six principles for animal research – three principles of social benefit and three of well-being. being animal – in a book to be published with Oxford University Press this fall. Our proposal is followed by comments from seven eminent scholars representing fields such as primatology, veterinary medicine, comparative psychology, law and ethics. Despite the willingness of these researchers to critique various aspects of our framework, all agree that its adoption would result in significant advances in the ethics of animal research.
Implementing the principles of social benefit—which together constitute a rigorous standard of cost-effectiveness—would promote more successful translation from animal studies to clinical use while eliminating poorly designed, insufficiently large, or overly harmful studies. Implementing animal welfare principles would promote a decent life for animal subjects, an appropriate goal given that their involvement is non-consensual and rarely therapeutic for them. The terms of the new framework would encourage constructive communication between the animal research community and the animal welfare community while providing stronger grounds for the public to embrace the animal research enterprise. Finally, the framework would allow policy changes in animal research to proceed according to principles.
David DeGrazia ([email protected]) is the Elton Professor of Philosophy at George Washington University. Tom L. Beauchamp is Emeritus Professor of Philosophy at Georgetown University. Their book, “Principles of Animal Research Ethics,” is due out this fall.