Sunday, January 17, 2010

“Is experimenting on monkeys ethical?”

Whatever may be the limitations which trammel inquiry elsewhere, we believe that the Great State University of Wisconsin should ever encourage that continual and fearless sifting and winnowing by which alone the truth can be found.

On January 8, 2010, the University of Wisconsin-Madison All Campus Animal Care and Use Committee deliberated on and responded to a question posed to the committee by Rick Marolt on August 7, 2009. It took the committee seven months to get to this point because it had made its decision earlier behind closed doors, possibly violating the state’s public meetings laws and was ordered (“prodded”) by the chancellor to meet and deliberate in an open meeting. Local media outlets reported on the meeting. See for instance “Campus Connection: Panel says ethics considered before monkey research.” Todd Finkelmeyer January 9, 2010. The Capital Times.

When I say that the committee deliberated on Marolt’s question, I am being generous. There actually wasn’t much deliberation if we take deliberation to mean a discussion and consideration by a group of persons. Of the dozen or so committee members sitting at the table only three and a half participated. Robert Streiffer read a prepared statement, Eric Sandgren gave a prepared presentation, and only Nancy Schultz-Darken contributed comments that could be fairly characterized as an attempt at discussion. Another member (whose name I don’t know) suggested that Schultz-Darken’s concerns for faculty who were afraid to speak publicly on the matter of primate experimentation were insubstantial and likely wrong. Schultz-Darken’s suggestion that the committee recommend to the chancellor some way – a forum of some sort – to give potentially critical or concerned faculty an opportunity to voice their opinions without fear of reprisal was left undiscussed.

I am responding to Robert Streiffer’s prepared remarks. At the end of this entry is a copy of his prepared statement. Dr. Streiffer provided me with this copy of his remarks when I asked him to correct any errors that had been inadvertently miswritten in the transcript I was working from originally. [A shout out to PR for the time spent making that transcript. Thank you, too, to Dr. Streiffer.]

Robert Streiffer’s remarks are of particular importance given his wide involvement in university research policy. See his Curriculum Vitae.

Streiffer’s stated opinions and remarks provide authority to the university’s claim that its use of animals receives careful scrutiny and ethical consideration. I predict that at some point in the not too distant future some university official will say something to the effect that the chair of one of the university’s animal care and use committees (ACUCs) is a bioethicist and will, either overtly or implicitly, leave their audience with the impression that the ethics of the research are duly considered. Streiffer is the chair of the School of Letters & Science ACUC, which among other things approves experiments at the Harlow Primate Psychology Laboratory.

I comment on some of Streiffer’s specific points and claims below. I begin here with the distilled version: Streiffer’s fundamental claim is an appeal to authority. And because the authorities he appeals to are not experts in the matter at hand, his claim is fallacious.

On matters of ethics or of moral behavior, there are persons who have significant knowledge of the history of ethics and moral behavior, but no one has a legitimate claim to authoratative knowlege of right and wrong. (Those who make such a claim frequently appeal to a supernatural source of knowledge.) This means then, that a fair review of evidence could and often does lead to different opinions regarding ethics; the only situations wherein opinions should be differently weighed are when one person or group has reviewed the evidence and the other has not; or else, when one has a broader knowledge of the evidence. If someone or group makes a claim in the absence of meaningful evidence their opinion must be proportionally discounted based on their degree of knowledge or ignorance, willful or otherwise.

If the question before the committee had been: Is the UW-Madison’s use of primates legal? or, “Is the care and use of monkeys at UW-Madison in general compliance with the federal regulations governing the care and use of animals used in research?” then, Streiffer's claim would have been a valid argument from authority because the authorities he appeals to in his argument are experts in those areas. In fact, these are precisely the questions that the animal care and use committees are charged to answer and do answer by referring and appealing to the accepted authorities in this specific area: the Animal Welfare Act, the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, the "U.S. Government Principles for the Utilization and Care of Vertebrate Animals Used in Testing, Research and Training," and the Public Health Service Policy on Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals.

But on the question before the committee – Is experimenting on monkeys ethical? – these documents and regulations have no authority. The ethics of animal use generally and primate experimentation specifically, are outside these authorities’ area of expertise.

Streiffer’s position appears to me to be a simple and handy abrogation of personal responsibility, a position shared by UW-Madison Chancellor Martin: “To the extent continued debate on this subject is merited, it should be pursued at the national level.” Letter to Rick Marolt. November 2, 2009.

During a radio debate a few years ago, I asked Paul Kaufman, a vivisector at the university who experiments on monkeys’ eyes, why it was ok to do things to them that would be immoral if they were done to a human. He said that the question was “above his pay grade.” This is essentially the same argument Martin used and that Streiffer uses in his motion (passed unanimously):
I move that the committee endorse the position that existing standards of veterinary care and applicable animal welfare laws, regulations, and policies provide a suitable and appropriate basis for determining when the use of nonhuman primates in research, teaching, or outreach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is ethical.
It is ethical, they all argue, because a higher authority says it is.

In most areas of human endeavor, this low level of ethical reasoning, this divestiture of personal responsibility, is of little serious consequence. “Sorry Ma’am, that’s our policy.” “Don’t blame me, I’m just doin’ my job.” “I don’t make the rules.” “Just following orders.”

Fortunately, some, albeit a minority of us, have over time, acted independently of laws and regulations. Some of us have hidden Jews in basements or attics. Some of us have helped slaves escape to freedom; in both cases violating the highest legal authorities in the land. Historically, states and municipalities have banned federally sanctioned activity and legalized federally banned behavior. Those elected to high office or those hired to administer state and federal regulations have no claim on ethical authority.

Streiffer’s appeal to the "U.S. Government Principles for the Utilization and Care of Vertebrate Animals Used in Testing" is problematic. The "Principles," also appealed to by Eric Sandgren in his presentation to the committee, were adopted in 1985, two-and-a-half decades ago now. Yet Streiffer says also that the use of non-human primates should be revisited periodically and periodically reassessed in light of the latest scientific knowledge and ethical reflection. Streiffer’s appeal to the "Principles" is contrary to and fatally diminishes the weight of this claim.

Additonally, the field of comparative ethology and the serious study of animals' minds was just getting started in 1985. The "Principals" were promulgated at a time when animal consciousness was still being widely and vigorously challenged. The bulk of the body of evidence produced by this blossoming of scientific inquiry was not even in existence. [For some background on this see: "Are Clever Animals Actually Thinking?" New York Times, 1983.]

Streiffer began his comments by comparing the university’s belief in primate experimentation with the Vatican’s belief in God.
UW knowingly engages in non-human primate research; we have Animal Care and Use Committees reviewing and approving protocols on a regular basis. It seems a bit like someone asking the Vatican to address the question on whether God exists.
He may have used this comparison as a catchy and facetious introduction, but I think he was right; the committee may as well have genuflected and voted immediately. The ethical correctness and the scientific efficacy of animal experimentation are tenets of faith among vivisectors. Faith is a phenomenon that isn’t easily shaken by facts. Nor is it an affect that entertains challenging ideas. This might account for the committee’s lack of discussion and Eric Sandgren’s recitation of federal regulations.

I believe this is a fair summation of Streiffer’s presentation:

1. The use of non-human primates is controversial and raises significant ethical issues.
2. The use of non-human primates should be revisited periodically and periodically reassessed in light of the latest scientific knowledge and ethical reflection.
3. ACUCs can and do make ethical decisions.
4. Society has taken a stand in support of primate research.
5. An infrastructure exists to oversee non-human primate research.
6. The university should defer the question of primate research to federal officials.
7. Primate research at the university is ethical.

1. I would be a little surprised if anyone involved with animal experimentation at the university didn’t agree that its use of monkeys is controversial. Whether or not it raises significant ethical issues though may vary from person to person. It appears to me, from Streiffer’s comments and the decided lack of conversation about this by the committee, that no one on the committee, neither Streiffer nor the other members feel this way.

In Strieffer’s case, he may believe that he believes this, but his believed belief seems unsubstantiated by his subsequent claims and opinion as voiced in his motion to the committee.

2. Because of these supposed significant ethical issues, he claims, the matter of primate experimentation should be periodically revisited and revaluated in light of the latest scientific information. But over the past five years, the majority of the Graduate School ACUC meetings (where all the primate center experiments are reviewed) and the All Campus ACUC meetings (where all the potentially most painful experiments are reviewed, or were) have been attended by members of the public. They report that scientific discoveries are never topics of discussion. I have reviewed the minutes of very many of these meetings; never is there mention of any scientific reports on animal cognition, emotion, or news that reflects on problems with the oversight system, or scientific reports questioning the efficacy of using animals as models of human biology.

If this body of scientific evidence and news isn’t mentioned, then re-evaluations cannot take place. Streiffer’s claim has little weight given the fact that the All Campus ACUC meeting could have been a venue for initiating just the sort of reconsideration and evidence weighing that he says should occur; but he did not attempt to begin what has apparently never been done, and yet which he claims should be done periodically. This seriously undermines his assertion and suggests that he may not actually believe what he apparently thinks he believes.

3. The question of whether or not ACUCs can and/or do make ethical decisions is an interesting one. Streiffer argues that they can and do; I think they could, but generally don’t.

Streiffer points to Regan’s and Francione’s assertions, based on their interpretations of the Animal Welfare Act that ACUCs are unable to make ethical decisions. Streiffer argues that because ACUCs disallow or modify some elements of proposed research that this is evidence of the committees’ ethical decision-making:
If a committee does not approve a protocol because it thinks it fails to provide acceptable housing or acceptable enrichment, then they are dealing with ethical issues, even if they don’t frame them using that terminology.
I am hard-pressed to understand how Streiffer could not see the fallacy in such an assertion. The answer must lie in the definition of ethics, which might be one of the things Marolt was referring to when he said that the committee didn’t understand his question (see the article linked to above.)

There is a very low level truth to a claim that one is acting ethically or “dealing with ethical matters” if one follows the letter of a regulation. But Streiffer’s assertion is fallacious because it substitutes this lowest level of putative ethical behavior with the explicit ethical review asked for by Marolt. In fact, it isn’t just animal research critics who note the inability of ACUCs to make such decisions:
12:3 Should the IACUC perform an ethical review of protocols?

... Funding agencies and corporate administrators may weight financial costs against potential benefit in distributing funds, but there is only limited weighing of benefit against harm to animals in any setting

For the most part, the IACUC does not and cannot conduct this explicit ethical review. The IACUC is charged with reviewing the rationale (preferably statistical) for the animal numbers chosen, for instance, but not whether a particular line of research warrants that number. Similarly, the IACUC evaluates a technical claim that nonhuman primates alone are likely to provide the sort of data sought, not whether a particular project ethically merits the use of primates. Because the IACUC does not have the tools (or the regulatory mandate) to conduct a thorough assessment of the scientific merit (i.e. the potential benefits) of a proposed project, it cannot make a thorough cost-benefit analysis. The IACUC Handbook. Silverman, Suckow, Murthy (Eds), 2000.
ACUCs could make ethical decisions; the UW-Madison All-Campus could have decided to look for the first time at the scientific evidence of primate cognition, emotion, and societal behavior that has accumulated over the decades and deliberated over its meaning and implication, but they didn’t.

4. Streiffer says:
Non-human primate research, after all, takes place across the country. It is a practice that in some minimal sense society has already taken a stand on, through the laws that allow it; the practices that encourage it; and the funding that supports it.
I’m sure it was just a typo, but he left out the word vanishingly. He should have said, "in some vanishingly minimal sense society has already taken a stand." Following Streiffer’s logic, we are forced to argue that American society took a supportive stance on every action ever conducted by government, and that’s farfetched indeed.

5. Steiffer claims that there is an infrastructure in place that oversees primate research.

No there isn’t.

There is an infrastructure in place that oversees, actually facilitates, animal experimentation. This is a much different thing than the oversight of primate research claimed by Streiffer.

6. Streiffer, echoing Chancellor Martin, says that others, not from Madison or even Wisconsin, should answer serious ethical questions about what is done on the University of Wiscosnin-Madison campus.

Chancellor Martin: “To the extent continued debate on this subject is merited, it should be pursued at the national level.”

Streiffer: The UW might want to “defer the larger question to those responsible for maintaining and improving the national oversight infrastructure.”

It’s Martin’s job to increase the power of the university, to make it richer, to shield it from public and societal criticism. So her comment makes perfect sense. She’s simply uninterested in ethics (or at least those ethical questions that don’t impinge on her directly.) But Streiffer’s comment is a different matter entirely; arguably, he represents the university’s ethical compass; others may look to him as a respected bioethicist to provide leadership on sticky ethical matters. In this case, he has allowed the ship to run aground.

7. Primate research at the university is ethical.

He is right – at the lowest level of ethical reasoning. It is ethical, in his terms, because the government says it is legal. But Marolt was asking for something other than a simple check on legality. Marolt’s question would require the members of the committee to do some reading and engage in discussion about the things they read.

Streiffer is an ethicist with impressive credentials. I am at a loss to account for his failure to genuinely address the question put to the committee, his failure to note publicly the clear conflicts of interest held by the committee members, his deferring of institutional and personal responsibility, and his apparent willingness to defend and sanction the un-winnowed and un-sifted official position of his employer.

In a previous post, I suggested that Robert Streiffer might suffer from ethical blindness. He challenged my characterization; as a PhD-holding philosopher who specializes in ethics, such a possibility might strike deeply and painfully. But what are the alternative possibilities?

There is a very long history of very well-educated and otherwise progressive thinkers who have been flat wrong on major ethical questions of their day. The animal question is the penultimate challenge to the special creation of man. The belief that humans are the pinnacle of creation and deserving of the de facto obeisance of all other species has evolved out of the original claim that only royalty were so deserving, then property-holding men were included, then in turn, white men, white women, people of color, and finally, all humans (or so much rhetoric claims.) Throughout this progression, smart and compassionate people have resisted, they have suffered from an era-bound ethical blindness that made it impossible for them to take notice of our morally relevant common characteristics. And, as a review of the evidence in existence today shows – a review Streiffer and the ACUC flatly refused to engage in – many other animals, and particularly the other primates – appear to share these characteristics with us.

See for instance:
“How Like Us Need They Be?” Bogle, R. Kindred Spirits, Indiana University. September 9, 2006. and

One last observation: Streiffer's position, that is, primate experimentation at the University of Wiscosnsin-Madison is ethical because a higher authority says it is, is, I believe, a dangerous notion. An appeal to authority is used today by scholars of Islam to justify stoning and horrific punishment. Appeals to authority have been used in every war as a justification for torture and murder. In all of these cases, individuals gave up their personal responsibility and decision-making with a reliance on the "better" judgement of the authorities.

What we have learned over the past century regarding the mental lives of animals makes it clear that what is occurring today, and is escalating, literally dwarfs the suffering during historic events that we commonly refer to as the darkest periods of human history. This cannot change until people look at the issues squarely, unflinchingly, and make decisions based on the idea of basic rights for all who suffer similarly.

Remarks for the All Campus-Animal Care and Use Committee, January 8, 2009
Robert Streiffer

As you know, Mr. Marolt has requested that UW address the question of whether it is ethical to do research on nonhuman primates. When I first heard his request, I was puzzled: UW knowingly engages in nonhuman primate research; we have Animal Care and Use Committees reviewing and approving protocols on a regular basis. It seemed a bit like someone asking the Vatican to address the question of whether God exists. I think we already know where the Vatican stands on that.

But as I thought about it more, I think I came to better understand what Mr. Marolt was asking for. If I understand him correctly, Mr. Marolt is asking that UW officially deliberate about and officially adopt a position on a question of applied ethics, a question that directly concerns campus activities. UW has done something similar before. Preparing for the possibility that Jamie Thomson would be the first person to ever successfully isolate human embryonic stem cells, UW formed a Biotechnology Advisory Committee, consisting of biologists, bioethicists, and law professors, who met for about 9 months to examine the ethics of embryonic stem cell research and produce a public report.

Now, the question of the ethics of nonhuman primate research is controversial. And as has become clear from Mr. Marolt’s attempts to find an audience to even consider his request, it is even controversial whether it is a good idea to take up the issue. Reports from ethics advisory committees sound nice on paper, but it would not be surprising if researchers and administrators were tempted to reject his request out of hand on the grounds it is not really a good-faith request for open and honest deliberation, but rather an attempt to obstruct research by a meddlesome activist. I think this temptation should be resisted, not because I am interested in speculating about Mr. Marolt’s motives, but because I think it’s a fallacy to reject an idea simply because one is dubious about the motives of the person whose idea it was. And I think that Mr. Marolt’s idea does indeed have merit.

The use of nonhuman primates does raise significant ethical questions. We currently allow research that causes harm and premature death to sentient individuals capable of living long lives, capable of happiness and suffering, capable of agency and emotion. We justify that research not by appealing to the good of those particular individuals nor by appealing to their consent. We justify it by appealing to the advancement of knowledge and the benefits for others. I think that any reasonable view about the ethics of nonhuman primate research must acknowledge that these are significant costs, not to be imposed lightly. Such an important issue should be revisited periodically; it should be periodically reassessed in light of the latest scientific knowledge and ethical reflection.

However, it does not automatically follow that UW should implement such a procedure here and now, much less that this specific committee should do so. Indeed, some might argue that the committee does not have the authority to take a stand on the general issue of the ethics of nonhuman primate research. The idea behind this view is that IACUCs are not authorized to decide whether research may be done, only the manner in which it may be done. IACUCs are not authorized to prohibit research, only to regulate it.

This argument is typically made by those opposed to animal experimentation who use it to criticize the existing oversight system as failing to provide satisfactory assurance that the animals are treated ethically. Tom Regan, the leading animal rights philosopher, asserts that “… IACUCs have no authority to impose ethical limits on what researchers may or may not do and thus no authority to stop even a single experiment on ethical grounds.”(1) Gary Francione, a professor of animal law, says that the AWA only gives IACUCs the authority to regulate “what sort of treatment must be given to animals”, and that it does not give IACUCs the authority to address “what particular experiments are appropriate for animal use.”(2)

Now, this argument purports to rest on a legal interpretation, and I do not focus on animal law, so my remarks here are tentative, but I want to briefly indicate why I don’t find such a narrow view of the regulations plausible with two examples.

IACUCs are required by law to prohibit any research that is not in compliance with what are referred to as the U.S. Government Principles. Principle VII requires that “the living conditions of animals should be appropriate for their species and contribute to their health and comfort.” It would thus be within the IACUC’s jurisdiction to prohibit research with a species if they concluded that appropriate housing conditions on campus could not be secured. (Imagine a researcher trying to bring chimpanzees onto a campus that can only secure funding for cages of the size typically used for macaques.) A decision about the appropriateness of housing conditions, which falls squarely within the jurisdiction of an IACUC, can amount to a prohibition on a certain kind of research. An even clearer, second, example comes from Principle II, which requires that “procedures involving animals should be designed and performed with due consideration of their relevance to human or animal health, the advancement of knowledge, or the good of society.” So if an IACUC finds that procedures involving animals do not produce sufficiently important knowledge, then it is within the IACUC’s legitimate authority to prohibit that research.

And even if this narrow interpretation were the correct reading of the law, it certainly isn’t my experience of how ACUCs operate. If a committee does not approve a protocol because it thinks the protocol fails to provide acceptable housing or enrichment, they are dealing with ethical issues, even if they don’t frame them using that terminology.

So, I do think that nonhuman primate research raises important ethical issues that deserve attention, and I don’t think that this committee is barred from addressing them. Does this mean that the ACACUC needs to implement a process similar to the one I described regarding stem cell research? I don’t think so. Nonhuman primate research, after all, takes place across the country. It is a practice that, in some minimal sense, society itself has taken a stand on, through the laws that allow it, the practices that encourage it, and the funding that supports it. In this respect, the situation with nonhuman primate research is very different from the situation I described earlier with respect to stem cell research. At that time, not a single person had ever engaged in embryonic stem cell research. There were no federal laws. Nothing existed for embryonic stem cell research that was remotely comparable to the infrastructure that exists to oversee nonhuman primate research. Since that time, federal guidelines for embryonic stem cell research have been developed, and there is now a committee on campus that reviews stem cell protocols in a manner not that different from how the ACUCs review animal use protocols.

Now, the mere fact that the research is common, legal, and has an oversight system in place does not necessarily mean that it is ethical. But it seems reasonable that a local animal oversight committee, or UW as a whole, might prefer to focus on its own day-to-day activities and defer the larger questions to those responsible for maintaining and improving the national oversight infrastructure.

I move that the committee endorse the position that existing standards of veterinary care and applicable animal welfare laws, regulations, and policies provide a suitable and appropriate basis for determining when the use of nonhuman primates in research, teaching, or outreach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison is ethical.

1 Carl Cohen and Tom Regan, The Animal Rights Debate (Rowman & Littlefield, 2001), 300-01.
2 Gary L. Francione, Animals, Property, and the Law (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1995), 186.

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