Eric Sandgren, who frequently serves as UW-Madison's spokesman for animal research, said in a public forum recently that local critics of experiments on animals are wrong when they claim that UW-Madison did not take up the ethical issue of experimenting on monkeys. In that public forum, Sandgren said more than once that people cannot believe what they hear because critics of experiments on animals make inaccurate statements.
So let's set the record straight.
In August 2009, I proposed to UW's top research oversight committee that the UW conduct a study to determine if experimenting on monkeys is ethical, and I requested a response to my proposal by a certain date.
That date came and went without any news, so I asked the chairman of the committee for an update. He told me that the committee had decided against my proposal. I asked him when the committee had made that decision. He said that the committee had discussed my proposal during the meeting that I attended, when I was out of the room. That was a lie. (And the committee probably violated the state's open meetings law by deliberating outside the meeting -- if they bothered to deliberate at all.) In any case, the committee declined to deal with the fundamental ethical question.
I shared this news with UW-Madison chancellor Biddy Martin because Martin had insisted that this committee was the appropriate body for answering the ethical question. Martin then instructed the committee to discuss my proposal formally and to give me a formal written response.
So that committee met again on January 8, 2010. The bio-ethicist on the committee presented a statement that concluded with a motion: "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."
Note that this motion does not respond meaningfully to my proposal and does not try in any way to answer my question. It says only that a basis for answering the question (or at least a similar question) exists. But the motion seems to assume that experimenting on monkeys, as it is done at UW-Madison, is at least sometimes ethical. I had asked the UW to question that assumption, not just to re-state it.
Sandgren presented his own written statement that the oversight processes ensure that experiments on monkeys meet a utilitarian ethical standard. But this statement only begs the main question and prompts a few more. Why should a utilitarian standard be applied to experiments on monkeys but not to experiments on people? (Sandgren has said elsewhere that "Utilitarianism trumps rights", which actually makes some sense to a principled utilitarian, which he is not, but still fails to explain why utilitarianism trumps the rights of monkeys but not the rights of people. And a deontologist would say that "rights trump utility".) What are the costs? What are the actual benefits to people? Where are the numbers, the evidence that a utilitarian standard is met? Why is it ethical for a powerful majority to exploit a powerless minority in pursuit of its self-interest? How do we know not only that the benefits of experimenting on monkeys exceed the costs but that experimenting on monkeys is the research approach with the greatest ratio of benefits to costs? How could it be if, as Sandgren himself has said in public, that there is a low "hit ratio" in translating experimental results into human benefits?
There was no study, no deliberation, no public input, and no testimony from experts, just statements that said, in effect: the status quo is fine. I wrote in a guest column in the Wisconsin State Journal after that:
The top animal research oversight committee at UW-Madison concluded recently that experimenting on monkeys is ethical. Here's what happened: a group of insiders who are constituted by law not to make ethical decisions but to ensure that the care of animals in labs meets a minimum standard, decided that the work that pays their salaries, funds their labs, and gives them a basis for tenure and promotion is ethical.So, did the UW take up the ethical question in any meaningful way? No. Sandgren should stop accusing concerned citizens of misleading the public.
It was as if the Mississippi Slave Owners Association was asked in 1850 to determine whether or not slavery was ethical.
The committee ignored all the scientific and morally significant findings about monkeys that raise the ethical question: their advanced mental abilities, their strong emotions, their complex social relationships, and their profound similarity to you and me.
The committee confused the question about the ethics of experimenting on monkeys with the question of the treatment of the animals. They made the absurd claim that meeting a legal minimum standard of care ensures that the experiments are ethical. But if experimenting on monkeys is not ethical, then no standard of care can make it so.
The committee claimed, without providing evidence, that they make ethical decisions all the time. But years ago, when I heard someone ask one member [Sandgren] how ethical decisions were made, his only answer was "I will have to get back to you on that." And someone who has attended about fifty committee meetings tells me that she has heard committees discuss ethics only three or four times — and only because they seemed to be making a show of it.
Instead of wrestling with the ethical issue, the committee simply endorsed an answer that they like. I know from my interaction with some committee members that some of them do not even understand the issue. And the few who do understand it are afraid to speak openly.
By the way, I am still waiting for the formal written response to my proposal.