DVD review: Physicians - Speaking for Research.

The other day I received a DVD made by Americans for Medical Progress called Physicians - Speaking for Research. (They indicate on their site that the DVDs are free for the asking.)
This is a DVD aimed at physicians, rather than at research scientists or the general public. However, the aim of the DVD is to help physicians to be better at communicating with the general public (primarily their patients, but also their family members and neighbors) about the role animal research has played in medical advances upon which we depend today, and the continued importance animal research will continue to play in medical progress.
In other words, this is a resource prepared with the awareness that groups like PETA have spent a lot of time communicating their message directly to the public, while scientists and physicians haven't made much of an organized effort to communicate their views on animal research to the public, nor even to think hard about precisely what that message might be or how to communicate it most clearly to laypeople. The DVD puts communication (dare I say it, framing) front and center.

The presentation starts with the tactics and talking points that the animal rights groups use to push for the restriction and elimination of animal research. This seems to me a very appropriate place to start; it's quite likely that physicians have been tuning out PETA's antics, not realizing the extent to which these may influence the opinions of their patients. If you're going to present an alternative argument, it's good to be familiar with the claims that your opponents already have on the table. Another good reason for the run-down of the animal rights strategies and talking points is that it puts the physician on notice that the people who would end animal experimentation have made concerted efforts to communicate directly with the public. To fail to engage the public yourself might amount to giving up the battle.
As far as I can tell, the presentation of the animal rights position is pretty accurate. The guiding philosophy of the movement is summed up in the DVD as follows:

  • All animals are sentient.
  • Thus, all animals have rights.
  • Humans have no special rights.
  • This, the use of animals by humans is speciesism.

The DVD doesn't probe what strike me as some fairly obvious questions about this philosophy (like whether it's speciesism when non-human animals use other animals, or whether we can look forward to a PETA campaign to get frogs and coyotes on a vegan diet). It does, however, include the famous statement from Ingrid Newkirk that "a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy".
Next, the DVD lays out six specific claims (identified as lies) that animal rights groups make about animal research:

  1. That it's inherently cruel and always painful.
  2. That it doesn't work, because animals aren't people.
  3. That it's unnecessary, because disease is preventable via lifestyle change and because there exist viable research alternatives to animal research.
  4. That it diverts huge amounts of money from direct patient care.
  5. That it puts pets at risk of being stolen and used in labs.
  6. That it's morally wrong and so justifies violence to stop it.

These are broadly countered with three claims:

  1. In the past century, virtually every medical advance depended on animal research.
  2. Animal research is essential to medical progress, at least for the foreseeable future (in part because we cannot replace animal subjects with human subject, about which more below).
  3. Without animal research, medical progress will slow, halt, and eventually reverse.

The next segment of the DVD talks about various specific medical advances made in recent years, and the lines of promising research currently underway involving animals. These explanations are given against the backdrop of the animal facilities at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center. This is a smart move because it lets physicians get a feel for what animal facilities at a center of medical research look like (and what they show matches pretty well with what I saw at the centers of medical research where I have worked). We see mice being mice, pigs and dogs getting some loving from the veterinarian, bunnies with their toys ("enrichment" in the jargon of the regulations governing animal research) -- none of this is explicitly pointed out, but it's visible as a fact of animal care in a research facility.
Finally, in discussing the questions the public asks most often about animal research (which, not surprisingly, follow pretty closely the animal rights talking points), physicians are given some guidance on how to counter the six claims enumerated above. Physicians are given the numbers on cats and dogs in research (more than 86% purpose bred for research, the rest acquired from "random source dealers" that have to pass muster with the USDA). They are given the low down on why animal systems can be appropriate for modeling disease and treatment in humans (because there are relevant similarities as well as difference) and why we can't just substitute computer models (because you can't build a good computer model of a phenomenon you don't understand fully). They are acquainted with the regulatory requirement for adequate anesthesia and analgesia for research animals during and after procedures, as well as the requirement that researchers demonstrate that they have considered alternatives to potentially painful procedures. For the physician who doesn't conduct research with animals, and thus might not be up on the regulations governing animal research, the DVD does a nice job of conveying the guiding principles. (Reading the regulations themselves, on the other hand, puts a burden on the reader to extract the guiding principles from the bureaucratic language.)
One of the questions dealt with on the DVD was, "Why do animal tests continue when cruelty-free products are available?" Part of the answer to this I already knew -- federal law requires that cosmetics and pharmaceutical drugs be tested in animals for safety and efficacy before you can expose humans to them. The other part -- what a scam the "cruelty free" labeling is -- I did not know. Apparently, this labeling indicates that the company itself didn't test the substances on animals in their own facilities, but that they probably paid another company to do the animal testing. Also, it means you'll likely get to pay more for the product than if it didn't have the "cruelty free" label.
There was one pair of questions where I felt the answer offered by the DVD wasn't as successful as Americans for Medical Progress probably wanted it to be. The questions were, "Do we have the right to use animals? Do animals have rights?"
Here's how these questions were answered on the DVD: Animals have a right to humane treatment. Physicians and scientists have a moral obligation to use the knowledge and tools available to them to enhance our ability to prevent, diagnose, and treat disease and to minimize suffering in human and nonhuman animals. Also, it's illegal to involve humans in potentially dangerous research; federal law requires data from animal research demonstrating safety and efficacy.
It strikes me that there are some iffy moves here. For one, while what's legal is certainly a constraint on what kind of research can be conducted, I think it's dangerous to conflate legality with morality. (It's not much of a challenge to think of example of activities that have been legal yet immoral, or activities that might be illegal yet moral.) Also, does this obligation to enhance the power of medical science have any limits? Are physicians obligated to cure death itself? Probably not. The fuzziness of this obligation makes it harder to weigh directly against the obligation to treat animals humanely.
And the real challenge is that there's no obvious way to answer the question of whether animals have rights, or why humans should have more rights than animals. You'd need to delve into some hardcore meta-ethics here, something about which neither the physician nor the layperson is going to be enthusiastic. As far as I can see, probably the most honest thing to say here is, there seems to be a morally relevant difference between humans and non-human animals at least when it comes to what kind of obligations we have toward them and what role they play in our moral community. Probably, overall, we could stand to make improvements in how we treat both human and non-human animals overall. But if it comes down to a choice between the good of one and the good of the other, we have an intuition (which is to say, a commitment for which it might be very hard to tell a story about how it is objectively grounded) that we ought to favor the interests of the human.
Coming clean that there is a judgment call here seems to me very important. I don't think being honest about this loses the public's support for animal research, especially given that the public is pretty attached to reliable medical treatments and a wide range of cosmetics. Half of where the animal rights camp seems to gain ground is in presenting the idea that people need not sacrifice their shampoo, their antidepressants, blood pressure and cholesterol medications, or their competent surgeons should animal research be halted.
I'd be quite interested to see what the folks more up on "framing" think of this DVD or other efforts like it.

Comments are off for this post

  • Suzanne says:

    I suspect that most people would never subscribe to the extreme beliefs of the animal rights movements, but a large proportion have valid concerns about research ethics. Not many people are going to oppose genuine medical research, but some research is both frivolous (as in cosmetics) and extremely cruel (as in LD50 tests). These days, public universities and hospitals will usually have effective ethics committees, but private companies may not. Organizations like PETA gain wide support, not because people explicitly support their goals or agree with their principles, but because people feel that there must be an imbalance in society when the extreme abuses publicized by PETA can occur. Such groups are neutered when regulation is perceived to be effective.

  • hip hip array says:

    Plus, there's a difference between the "animal rights" activists' view of animal rights and the deep ecologists' view of animal rights. They disagree quite strongly.

  • Ignotus says:

    I gotta say, just from reading about various mini-scandals on this very blog, I haven't been too impressed with the efficacy of our current systems for protecting lab animals. The law may be in the right place but that doesn't matter much if we can't have faith in the enforcement. The cases that come to light tend to be clusterf*cks - who knows how much stuff is never reported?

  • S. Rivlin says:

    This is a very complex topic that one DVD or one blog posting cannot fully cover. Nevertheless, as scientists and clinicians, we should recognize the contribution that the "animal rights" advocates made to the way by which animal research is being performed today in the US. In most academic and research animal facilities, animals are being treated better than large sections of the human population in many countries. Of course, inhumane treatment of humans cannot justify such treatment of animals, yet, we must convey to the public that a certain degree of pain and suffering is part of any medical treatment. The difference here between humans and animals is that the purpose of a treatment, even that of an experimental one, could be explained to the human subject, who thus is willing to suffer the consequences (signed informed consent), but not to an animal. Hence, since humans "know better," animals have no choice but to accept the human decision. In this respect, there is no difference between a parent who makes the decision about the medical treatment of his child and the scientist who makes the decision regarding the animal research s/he performs - s/he simply knows better.
    My concern about animal research in the shadows of PETA's threats is that medical research in this country will suffer in the long run because of "outsourcing." As embryonic stem cell research is being outsourced so will all animal research if animal rights people will get the upper hand. Countries with less restricting regulations on animal research will be able to attract animal research away from the US.

  • Herb West says:

    I think if we understood human rights then an understanding of animal rights would naturally follow. As a society we are so woefully uneducated that even a professor of philosophy and ethics is unable to explain what rights humans have and why they have them. It's no wonder that she and we are confounded by the question of animal rights.

  • David Hunter says:

    The problem with the child analogy above is that we strictly regulate child research so that the research at a minimum does not stand a serious chance of harming the child and ideal is likely to benefit them. This is clearly not the case for animal research... While we might know better (for ourselves) it is unclear that we know better for them, unlike in the child case.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    David, we also eat animals, but we do not eat children. The point is that we relegate authority to those who either have the legal basis for such authority (parents over a child, owner over a pet) or who have an expertise and a certification certifying the expertise to care for (vet) or to experiment with animals.
    As to animal rights, clearly, the lower the animal is on the evolutionary scale, the less rights it has (a primate has by far more rights than a drosophila).
    I would like Herb to explain it. For me, that's the basis and the difference between human rights and animal rights. Hence, no pet owner (or his vet) who decides to euthanize his sick pet would be called Dr. death. Animals rights amount to humane treatment when animals are under our control. Most animals in nature, where human intervention is minimal or non-existent, have no rights except to defend themselves against their enemies or to attack their prey (no Geneva convention rules apply in the animal kingdom, no peace treaties, no rules against torture). Laws against animal cruelty make us feel more humane. We agree that since we control so many animals and their lives that such humane treatment is part of our law and order society. All these rules, all these animal rights will be thrown out the window when famine hits us.

  • Ignotus says:

    "As to animal rights, clearly, the lower the animal is on the evolutionary scale, the less rights it has (a primate has by far more rights than a drosophila)."
    Man what?
    No offense, but writing something like this makes you look very, very silly, and ill informed both about animal rights and about evolution. There is no "evolutionary scale" with us at the top and amoebas or other simple life at the bottom. All creatures alive today are the product of the same eons of descent with modification. We're all equally "evolved".
    Perhaps you meant something else?
    "All these rules, all these animal rights will be thrown out the window when famine hits us."
    When the famine gets bad enough, human rights get defenstrated too. Remember the Donner party?

  • S. Rivlin says:

    I do not remember the last time PETA people broke into the lab of a drosophila genetic center to release to freedom all the flies. I am not aware of an IACUC protocol for the care and handling of cockroaches. I did some work on snails in the past where no IACUC protocol was required. Farmers destroy mice and rats in the billions every year protecting their crops. I never heard of PETA demonstrating in defence of these rodents.
    It may sound silly, but this is the reality.

  • Ignotus says:

    S. Rivlin,
    I didn't disagree with your conclusion - that primates deserve more ethical consideration than flies - but with your justification for that conclusion. I don't think your justification makes much sense, and doesn't lend you much support. This may not matter when you make uncontroversial claims (monkey rights > fly rights), but it does mean that when you try to make more controversial claims (i.e. the actual arguments in this thread) on this basis they don't have much to stand on.

  • S. Rivlin says:

    That was not a justification; it was simply an observation. The lower the animal on the evolutionary scale, the lesser its rights. This is the reality, not a justification.

  • David Hunter says:

    It looked like you were committing an is/ought fallacy, so I am glad you clarified things, you aren't making a normative claim, just a descriptive one. Descriptively you are correct, but of course the appropriate responses is: "So what, what is the case tells us nothing about what ought to the case..." The debate is about what rights animals ought to have and what morally relevant differences there are between all humans and all animals. If these can't be identified, and non-consensual, harmful experimentation on humans can't be justified then likewise it cannot be justified on animals.
    A particular difficulty here for the scientist is that for animal research to make sense as above they need to be good models of human responses. But the better a model they are... the less likely it is that our treatment of them is appropriate because there are less morally relevant differences. (if any)

  • Clinton says:

    Ok David, you appear to be one who believes in a scale of nearness-to-human modifying the justifications for using particular species. Unsurprising since this is something most everybody agrees on, even those who want to quibble whether Limulus is an "animal" or not.
    So, get down to brass tacks for us. What is more justified, using 500 rats (because they are a "lesser" model of the human condition) or using 8 monkeys? Do you believe in "fewer animals used" as a valid goal or are the numbers irrelevant?