Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Bioethics at NIH

It seems that NIH supports a robust effort to ensure that human subjects being used in its supported research are treated humanely and in accordance with the spirit of documents like the Belmont Report. It also appears that NIH is alert to potential harm to human subjects that could arise from emerging technologies and works to ensure that the potential harms are identified and carefully evaluated. NIH seems to support ongoing work on the ethical side of its supported research with human subjects. But when the research involves the use of animals, nothing similar occurs.

Instead of being at the leading edge of research and thought on the ethics of hurting and killing animals for human gain, NIH is reactionary at best. This does not speak well for those in the NIH Department of Bioethics. Their near uniform silence on the matter suggests something less than should be expected from anyone claiming to be a bioethicist.

I wonder why ethicist is deemed insufficient? Maybe putting bio- in front of ethics is politically correct code for self-interest or maybe it just sounds more highfalutin. Maybe bio-ethics gives license to behave in ways that plain old ethics would deny? What isn't open to speculation is that when- and wherever NIH uses the term in relation to its funding of experiments on animals, ethics does not have its commonly implied meaning. In NIH's usage, the word in any connection to vivisection, refers only to its legality.

When NIH or one of its supported institutions or scientists say that their use of animals is ethical, all they really they mean is that it is legal. They seem to think that anything legal is ethical. Moreover, it has to be assumed that animals' pain and suffering is of such little concern or consequence to NIH's bioethicists that they need not even take notice of it.

This narrow meaning of the word has contributed to innumerable events that are universally thought of as having been profoundly immoral. (Slavery, state-sanctioned torture, and mass executions are just the tip of a very large mountain of examples. In many cases, philosophers -- the ethicists of the day -- defended the practices, or as today's NIH crew does, simply ignored them.) This narrow meaning of the word continues to shield immoral behavior and maintains barriers to moral progress on numerous important issues including how other animals are and should be treated by us. It seems that we never learn the lesson that legal and ethical should not be used interchangeably. It might have something to do with moral development. (See W.C. Crain. (1985). Theories of Development. Prentice-Hall. pp. 118-136. )

The NIH and its supported institutions and scientists tend to use ethics and ethical in ways that an unsuspecting reader would naturally and predictably interpret as meaning that the practices being discussed or defended are just or moral.

Consider the upcoming "NIH Workshop on Ensuring the Continued Responsible Oversight of Research with Non-Human Primates." (Wednesday, September 7, 2016, 9:00am to 5:00pm. It will be videocasted here: http://videocast.nih.gov.)
The NIH Office of Science Policy is organizing a workshop on September 7th, 2016, that will convene experts in science, policy, ethics, and animal welfare. Workshop participants will discuss the oversight framework governing the use of non-human primates in NIH-funded biomedical and behavioral research endeavors. At this workshop, participants will also explore the state of the science involving non-human primates as research models and discuss the ethical principles underlying existing animal welfare regulations and policies. NIH is committed to ensuring that research with non-human primates can continue responsibly as we move forward in advancing our mission to seek fundamental knowledge and enhance health outcomes.
The workshop is one result of PETA's successful lobbying effort that led to the closure of Stephen Suomi's lab at NIH. A few members of Congress were appalled by videos of some of the things being done to monkeys in the lab and complained to NIH Director Francis Collins (who not coincidentally is also a vivisector.) NIH followed the standard playbook and denied that the lab closure was due to the dust-up. Honesty is also implied by ethical when the term is used in its more commonly understood sense.

A bit of background about that case: copies of the videos were turned over to Peta in response to its public records requests. NIH could not resort to the usual claim that the evidence had been doctored by animal rights extremists; it was clear that the extremists were the NIH scientists performing cruel and macabre experiments on baby monkeys and their mothers. Suomi was the co-inventor of the infamous vertical chamber that made a name for UW-Madison as far as cruelty is concerned, or in the words of his teacher and co-inventor Harry Harlow, the "well of despair."

NIH has chosen not to name the participants in the workshop ahead of time -- the "experts in science, policy, ethics, and animal welfare." That doesn't seem too ethical to me. I'll wager right now that an overwhelming number of the experts will have obvious financial and professional interests in maintaining the status quo. The title of the workshop makes this even more likely "... Ensuring the Continued Responsible Oversight...". As if.

The workshop is actually just an appeasement to the members of Congress who were alarmed by the NIH's irresponsible sponsorship of Suomi's cruel and worthless very long career.

Given the background of the agency's leadership, it is unlikely that NIH would or even could convene a panel that might fairly evaluate the ethics surrounding the use of monkeys or any other animals in its funded research. An example of the agency's inability to grapple with this issue was seen pretty clearly during another NIH convened workshop, "The NIH Recombinant DNA Advisory Committee" meeting in June, 2014. See: "...an unbearable kind of suffering." (4-15-2016.)

It is interesting and germane to NIH's misuse of ethics and bioethics to note that if one visits the NIH homepage, and searches the site using bioethics, the first hit is The Department of Bioethics, which is part of the NIH Clinical Center. The Department of Bioethics provides an ethics consultation service for researchers, the Clinical & Research Ethics Services. Its stated purpose is to: "... improve the process and outcomes of clinical care and clinical research at times when ethical quandaries arise by addressing distressing concerns and questions, and assisting with identification and analysis of ethical issues."

Try as I may, I have been unable to find anything other than a topic on an obsolete list and a single name that even hints that the NIH Department of Bioethics has ever taken notice of any matter involving the use of animals. It is as if, no, that's not right, it isn't as if, let me say it plainly: Neither NIH at large nor the NIH Department of Bioethics, believes that the use of animals is an ethical concern. Maybe I'm wrong, but if so, they have hidden any evidence to the contrary.

But casual visitors might think otherwise. Under the section on Ethics of Clinical Research, among the five research areas listed is this: Research with Animal Populations. But after that mention, all reference to animals disappears.

The name I referred to above is David DeGrazia. But the chart has not been updated recently, and at least one of the people listed is deceased (Alan Wertheimer, PhD.) DeGrazia is the author of a number of academic articles on the ethics of animal research. [Nonhuman Primates, Human Need, and Ethical Constraints. DeGrazia D. Hastings Cent Rep. 2016 Jul;46(4):27-8; Necessary conditions for morally responsible animal research. DeGrazia D, Sebo J. Camb Q Healthc Ethics. 2015 Oct;24(4):420-30. And here.] His work related to animals does not seem to be mentioned or referred to on the NIH pages. If one searches his name from the main NIH page, there are multiple hits and some are for articles on the ethics of animal use. But these hits are links to PubMed which currently indexes over 26 million citations.

I contacted DeGrazia to ask whether he was still affiliated with Department of Bioethics; he confirmed that he is. (The inclusion of someone who had been dead for a while is what led me led to ask.) He has been a Senior Research Fellow in the department since July 2013. He was recommended as a participant for the "NIH Workshop on Ensuring the Continued Responsible Oversight of Research with Non-Human Primates," but told me that he was not invited. It seems to me that the failure to invite one of its own Senior Research Fellows in its own Department of Bioethics who has written and thought about the use of primates in biomedical research undermines the implication of the NIH's claim that they "will discuss the ethical principles underlying existing animal welfare regulations and policies." But maybe I'm wrong and there will be others included who are as qualified to talk about the ethics underpinning the use of monkeys. (I won't hold my breath.)

In any case, other than mention of DeGrazia's name and the single apparently obsolete listed topic name, there appears to be no mention or consideration of the ethics of animal use on the NIH Department of Bioethics webpages, the NIH site at large, or even a link to something elsewhere.

It seems to me that this absence on pages devoted to ethics, is telling. And then, there is the NIH Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW). The word ethics does not appear on the homepage. If you click Useful Links, you are taken to an organized list of websites. This is the set of sites listed under Ethics:

1. Animal Ethics Infolink, Australia. Australia?

2. Guidelines for Ethical Conduct in the Care and Use of Nonhuman Animals in Research, APA. The American Psychological Association (APA) is a trade group with many members whose livelihoods are dependent on animal experimentation. Their Guidelines are simply a restatement of federal regulations and the urging of vivisectors not to break the law. It does not in any sense address the ethics of animal experimentation.

3. Information Resources for Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees 1985-1999: Ethics USDA. I thought this might lead to something substantive. On first blush, it seems to. Unfortunately, when drilling down from here, one hits one dead end after another. I was probably the first person to look at the page in a long time. The germane links in the pdfs refer one to the USDA's Animal Welfare Information Center, which in turn, directs users to various regulatory and policy documents. Again underscoring the misleading substitution of ethical for legal.

4. NASA Principles for the Ethical Care and Use of Animals. Right. NASA's history of animal use is the anathema of ethical.

5. National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC), Australia. Australia again?

6a. NIH Bioethics Resources on the Web This takes one to the Office of Clinical Research and Bioethics Policy mentioned earlier, which has no mention of animal use.

6.b Research Ethics, Laboratory Animal Care and Use. Which is a broken link.

7. On Being a Scientist: Responsible Conduct in Research, 1995, NAP. You can read the little booklet online. The word animal does not appear in the linked version. In a funny-ish twist, they point to the first edition of the booklet. The third edition is now in print. The third edition does mention animals somewhat frequently and always in connection with making sure that what is being done to them is legal. The ethics of animal use is not otherwise mentioned.

8. The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique, W.M.S. Russell and R.L. Burch, 1959, Johns Hopkins University, School of Public Health. This classic serves as the guide for all subsequent regulations and policies promulgated by vivisection trade groups, the industry, and the NIH. It is well worth reading and is available here. The work is only marginally on point however because it assumes and proceeds without explanation or argument that it is fitting and just to experiment on animals.

I don't think NIH is capable of convening a fair panel to discuss the ethics of animal experimentation. The agency is dominated by vivisectors and those with ties to the industry. See for instance, "It is Unethical for Carrie Wolinetz to be Involved in Any Policy Decisions Concerning the Use of Animals or Non-Human/Human Chimeras," and "Vivisectors at the Helm."

The upcoming "NIH Workshop on Ensuring the Continued Responsible Oversight of Research with Non-Human Primates" is probably going to be more of the same.

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