Saturday, November 19, 2011

Guiding Principles

In my previous post I argued that one could morally and ethically use various ill-gotten gains and still be justly opposed to the methods used to acquire them.

The folks over at the misleadingly-named “Speaking of Research” website were understandably nonplussed by my argument since it undermines a key tenet of their quasi-religious faith in and defense of the serial sacrifice of innocents at the altar of $cience. [They ought to use the more specific terms: vivisection or animal sacrifice.“Speaking of Animal Sacrifice”]

They believe (in the religious sense) that anyone critical of hurting and killing animals in the name of $cience ought not avail themselves of or allow a loved one to receive pretty much any medical care.

They make this claim based on their belief that: a) all (or at least most) of modern medicine rests squarely on animal sacrifice, and b) taking a drug or receiving medical care is hypocritical if one opposes hurting and killing animals.

In their response to my argument, they posted a link to a funny little PR device called the “Animal Rights Identification Card.” I was unable to locate this document when I was composing my argument, and thank them for linking to it. It reads:

So as not to violate my animal rights principles, I hereby request that in the event of an accident or illness, all medical treatments developed or tested on animals be withheld, including but not limited to: blood transfusions, anesthesia, pain killers, antibiotics, insulin, vaccines, chemotherapy, coronary bypass surgery, reconstructive surgery, orthopedic surgery, etc.

It’s an odd little thing. It supposes, apparently, that an emergency room doctor will be conversant with the history of medicine to such a degree that they will know what did and did not come about as a result of experiments on animals. (Literally everything has been tested on animals: water, paint, milk, uranium, etc. A few medical advances may have been absolutely dependent on animals.)

The difficulty with knowing the history of the development of every medical intervention is a problem that probably isn’t noticeable to a true believer because they have faith that all of medicine is pretty much the direct result of and absolutely dependent on animal experimentation. They must hold this belief, because otherwise, they wouldn’t point to this industry lobbiest-authored silly little wallet card.

I particularly like the “etc.”

You have to imagine that the authors of a list like the one on the card would name the really important, absolutely indisputable examples of the fruits of vivisection. I don’t imagine that many people are conversant with the history of every single medical intervention or drug in use today, I’m certainly not, but one might imagine that the authors would be sure of the items on their list.

And while I’m no authority on each and every medical advance, I have read about some of them.

An interesting easy read is Robert E. Alders Medical Firsts: From Hippocrates to the Human Genome. (John Wiley & Sons Inc. 2004.) In the chapter on anesthesia, “Such Stuff as Dreams Are Made On: The Discovery of Anesthesia,” Alders explains that pain-reducing and -eliminating drugs were in long use prior to the discovery of the pain-eliminating properties of nitrous oxide or the anesthetic properties of ether, or a method for its administration. The development of neither nitrous oxide nor ether involved the use of animals.

The inclusion of reconstructive surgery on this list is odd and also wrong. As far as I know, the earliest examples of reconstructive surgery come from India. Here’s an interesting little article about the history of this branch of medicine.

It starts like this:

Plastic surgery since 1600 BCE

Surgery has the power to cure and repair. It can also be used to minimise deformity after injury or illness. This is called reconstructive or plastic surgery and, surprisingly, has been with us since around 1600 BCE - surgical papyri have been found describing methods for repairing a broken nose and providing instruction in suturing to minimise scarring.

It is true that at some point in time, vivisection became so much the rage that animals were subjected to every new drug and device; there is however, significant disagreement as to the degree any of this quasi-science was or continues to be necessary.

The history of vaccines is interesting. It's true that many (most, all?) modern vaccines are based on organisms grown on animal tissues, but vaccines were invented in prehistoric antiquity, at least no good record of the origin remains so far as I am aware. An interesting book on the introduction of vaccination (variolation) into Europe and the American colonies is Jennifer Lee Carole's The Speckled Monster: A Historical Tale of Battling Smallpox. New York: Plume, 2003.

But the gist of the “Speaking of Research” rejoinder to my argument isn’t dependent on their mistaken beliefs about the value of animals in medical research.

They claim that it is unethical for an animal research critic to avail his or herself of a medical treatment if animals were used during its development but unproblematic to use the fruits of hurting or killing humans, if the practices that led to those advances are no longer sanctioned.

This paints them once again into a difficult corner. They must be getting comfortable in their tight quarters.

They say, under their “Guiding Principles” that:

Speaking of Research believes that animal research should be conducted with the utmost care, responsibility and respect towards the animals. All personnel involved in animal research should strictly follow the pertinent guidelines, regulations and laws.

It seems then, by their measure, that data from a researcher or lab, or even an institution in some cases, is poisoned if research there wasn’t conducted “with the utmost care, responsibility and respect towards the animals,” or if anyone there did not “strictly follow the pertinent guidelines, regulations and laws.”

Utmost care, responsibility, and respect are somewhat subjective. In my opinion, forcing a chemical down an animal’s throat when you expect it will probably die as a result, isn’t respectful, but I understand that opinions about the meaning of words like utmost care, responsibility, and respect are subjective. But breaking the law, no so much.

Violations of the pertinent guidelines, regulations, and laws are widespread and fairly common.

According to the 2000 "USDA Employee Survey on the Effectiveness of IACUC Regulations":

An estimated 600 to 800 facilities have had trouble with the search for alternatives, 450 to 600 with review of painful procedures, and 350 to 400 with monitoring for compliance. The high level of problems reported by VMOs supports the need for a review of Policy 12, “Search for alternatives.”

A more specific example: In 2010, it was discovered that the University of Wisconsin, Madison had been breaking the state law for many years that banned killing animals by means of decompression. It was later discovered that the university had also been breaking the state law that banned staging fights between animals, and had been doing so for a number of years.

These crimes mean that the university had also been in violation of its Public Health Service (PHS) Animal Welfare Assurance, which stipulated that the university’s use of animals complied with The Guide to the Use and Care of Laboratory Animals (the Guide), which says in three places that all local, state, and federal laws governing the treatment of animals must be obeyed.

What this means is that specific researchers were violating state law, and the university, by promising in writing that they were following the Guide which states clearly and repeatedly that all law applicable laws must be obeyed, was violating the PHS regulations and thus lying to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) on all the grant applications from researchers at the university. This was fraud because their false assurance resulted in (massive) financial reward.

The problems at the University of Wisconsin, Madison are not unique, but using that example, it appears that “Speaking of Research” might be in some ethical hot water.

The UW-Madison vies with the University of California, San Francisco as the largest recipient of NIH funding. (Johns Hopkins is always the top recipient.) It’s hard to name a disease or malady that at least someone there isn’t claiming to be using animals to study.

“Speaking of Research” will have to duck and dodge to explain how availing themselves of some medical treatment for some malady that is being investigated and written about by a researcher there fits in with their “Guiding Principle.”

There are a couple of honest ways out of this predicament. They could:

1. Argue that just because someone uses animals in their (name the disease) research, it doesn’t mean that their published papers have contributed anything at all to current medical care. (They would be right; this is one thing that makes it hard to accurately trace the real path of development.)

2. Argue that no animal research conducted at the university since the time the state laws against killing animals by means of decompression or staging fights between animals were passed has contributed to current medical practices. (This would require a level of investigation I doubt they are capable of -- I couldn't do it either.)

3. Argue that their “Guiding Principles” don’t actually guide them.

In any case, it seems that they have a problem on their hands. They say it’s OK to use drugs or knowledge gained through immoral methods so long as those methods are now illegal. And, they claim to hold as a guiding principle that all personnel involved in animal research should strictly follow the pertinent guidelines, regulations, and laws.

But in fact, the pertinent guidelines, regulations, and laws are violated with some regularity, as the USDA points out.

Somewhat as an aside, I think it worthwhile to call attention to an implicit result of their argument. It follows from their position that doing something one believes is immoral makes one a hypocrite.

But I’m not so sure that it’s such a straightforward matter. The case of a dying loved one who might benefit from a drug that was tested on animals seems somewhat akin to the situation known as a choiceless choice.

This is a term coined after World War II by Lawrence Langer as he tried to make some sense of the non-choices that confronted people in the death camps. A related example I read many years ago that has stuck in my head are the accounts of small groups of Jewish refugees fleeing from Nazi-held territory, particularly in fishing boats crossing the Baltic Sea.

They hid in false bulkheads and had to remain quiet when the Nazi patrols came along side or boarded their boats. Occasionally, among a small hidden group was a baby or very young child. If they began to cry or make any sound, their mothers or fathers, or whoever was with them, would cover their mouths. In some cases, the child would be smothered to death.

I am hard pressed to call the person holding their hand over the child’s mouth a hypocrite. I think victim is a better term.

Likewise, in the case of a dying loved one who might benefit from a drug that was tested on animals, I don’t believe it would be fair to call the person at the bedside a hypocrite if they sanctioned the use of that drug.

As I said in my previous post on this point, I think one can be absolutely opposed to the use of animals and still avail oneself to a drug that may have been tested on them. I think too, that making choices for another may force one to make decisions that are contrary to one’s morality, and that doing so would not be unethical.

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