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.

Monday, August 8, 2016

It is Unethical for Carrie Wolinetz to be Involved in Any Policy Decisions Concerning the Use of Animals or Non-Human/Human Chimeras

Within the past couple of days, according to Google, there have been about 140,000 news articles about the National Institutes of Health's announcement that it intends to start funding some human/nonhuman hybridization and allowing the creation of what are commonly referred to as chimeras.

NIH opened a 30-day window for public comment, but for those who might be opposed to this change in federal policy and choose to write them a thoughtful letter, they might as well shout their concerns into the toilet. (I still think you should write a letter.)

This is the sort of issue that should be debated in public and decided on by the public; 30 days is hardly enough time. So much for democracy.

One of the articles that showed up in my newsfeed was "You Can Now Grow Human-Animal Hybrids, But You Can’t Breed ‘Em," from Wired magazine. The article relies in part on an apparent conversation with Robert Streiffer, a "bioethicist" at the University of Wisconsin, Madison who once chaired one of the university's Animal Care and Use Committees and with whom I have occasionally argued. Over time, Streiffer has inched toward a more ethical position on animal use, and even publicly criticized vivisector Ned Kalin's revival of maternally depriving infant rhesus monkeys.

To Streiffer's credit, he apparently told the article's author that animals used in research have less protection that humans used in research. While that simple observation should surprise no one, it is the opposite of the university's usual claim. R. Alta Charo, for instance, the Warren P. Knowles Professor of Law and Bioethics at the university, is on the faculty of the Law School and the Department of Medical History and Bioethics at the medical school. She has served on many federal commissions related to bioethics. In a public forum ostensibly about the ethics of using animals in research, she ridiculously said: "We have federal laws [to protect animals in the labs] that actually go further than the federal laws that govern human subjects research...".

There are two main things that caught my eye in the Wired article, the main one has to do with consciousness, which I wrote about here. The other was this:
After a nearly year-long ban, on August 4 the NIH said it would soon lift its moratorium and again start accepting grant applications from vivisectors who want to develop human-animal chimeras. “We thought it was good time to take a deep breath, pause and make sure the ethical frameworks that we have in place allows us to move forward and conduct this research responsibly,” says Carrie Wolinetz, associate director for science policy at NIH.
Whenever NIH funding for animal experimentation is mentioned in conjunction with ethics my BS-meter goes berserk. And so, I Googled Carrie Wolinetz. All I can say is holy shit.

It would be impossible I suspect to have found someone with more love for experimenting on animals than Ms. Wolinetz. This is the NIH director's announcement of her appointment, plagiarized from here, and published on my birthday. The links in the text were added by me to clarify the positions on animal use of some of the organizations she has worked for.
February 2, 2015

Appointment of Dr. Carrie Wolinetz as Associate Director for Science Policy, NIH
Carrie Wolinetz, Ph.D.

I am pleased to announce the appointment of Carrie Wolinetz, Ph.D., as the new Associate Director for Science Policy, NIH. This appointment is effective February 23, 2015.

Dr. Wolinetz has most recently been serving as Deputy Vice President for Federal Relations with the Association of American Universities (AAU). Her primary responsibility was to coordinate advocacy on funding and policy issues relating to the National Institutes of Health and biomedical research.

Outside of AAU, Dr. Wolinetz serves as current President of United for Medical Research, a leading coalition of universities, patient groups, and private sector companies advocating for sustainable funding for the National Institutes of Health. [Essentially all the coalition members are very pro-vivisection.] In addition, she is an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Georgetown University in the School of Foreign Service’s program on Science, Technology & International Affairs, as well as past Chair of the advocacy committee for the Association for Women in Science (AWIS). She has a B.S. in animal science from Cornell University, and she received her Ph.D. in animal science from The Pennsylvania State University, where her area of research was reproductive physiology. [She seems to have published a single scientific paper.]

Prior to joining AAU, Dr. Wolinetz served as the Director of Scientific Affairs and Public Relations at the Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology (FASEB), where she worked on a portfolio of issues that included federal funding of research, the use of animals in research, cloning and stem cells, and biosecurity.

I would like to thank David Shurtleff most sincerely for serving as the Acting Associate Director for Science Policy over the last several months. His wise and gracious leadership kept this critical part of NIH on a steady and effective path.

Please join me in welcoming Carrie to the NIH leadership team, congratulating her on her appointment, and offering her your full support as she begins her work with us.

Francis S. Collins, M.D., Ph.D. [and vivisector]
So, the woman who is apparently involved at a senior level in determining national policy on the creation of animal/human hybrids is now and has been in the past, immersed in organizations lobbying for more money for animal experimentation, reduced constraints on their use, and publicly promoting vivisection.

It is unethical for Carrie Wolinetz to be involved in any policy decisions concerning the use of animals or non-human/human chimeras.

As I said above, please do write a letter.

The NIH Faith-Based Policy on Non-Human/Human Chimeras

This essay was motivated by the August 8, 2016 article in Wired magazine: "You Can Now Grow Human-Animal Hybrids, But You Can’t Breed ‘Em." The article relies in part on a conversation with Robert Streiffer, a "bioethicist" at the University of Wisconsin, Madison who once chaired one of the university's Animal Care and Use Committees. (I qualified bioethicist because I don't think the title or label has much meaning. I mention a few reasons I think that later on.)

There are two things that caught my eye in the Wired article, the main one has to do with consciousness, which I wrote about here. The other was the obvious bias of those involved in the NIH policy change which I wrote about here. For more about the biases at NIH see: "Vivisectors at the Helm." 11-1-2014.

I suspect that some of the ideas in the article about consciousness are indicative of some broadly-held notions by many people. But those ideas are more along the lines of superstition or urban myth than anything else:
Last year, though, the National Institutes of Health banned funding of animal-human chimeras until it could figure out whether any of this work would bump against ethical boundaries. Like: Could brain scientists endow research animals with human cognitive abilities, or even consciousness....
Human cognitive abilities, or even consciousness?

Most of the animals people think about when they use the word animal in this context already have "human cognitive abilities." Obviously they don't have the same cognitive abilities of every human, but neither do I. It is hard to see what cognitive ability could be inserted into a monkey, dog, pig, or mouse used in a lab that would make his or her suffering any worse.

The idea that animals would suffer more if they were slightly or a lot more like us is an echo of the assertions made by racists. Blacks don't suffer like whites was a common claim by pro-slavery writers in the South. Jews and Poles aren't as aesthetically sensitive as pure Aryans; or honest and generous. These claims of superiority are always spawned by those in the self-proclaimed better, more important and deserving group. This hatred or at least minimizing of others seems to be a sickness common to humanity.

And what I wonder the author means by consciousness. Surely he doesn't believe that animals are unconscious. I'm guessing from the context that he would say he meant "human consciousness." But the distinction has no basis in fact. Consciousness is a mystery. It is sometimes referred to as the hard problem. Since it isn't understood -- at all -- suppositions about differences between kinds of consciousness are complete and completely unsubstantiable speculation. There is no reason at all to assume that an elephant's sense of him or herself is any different than yours. And even if you think there is, your belief is nothing but a wild guess. And probably driven by the same innate propensity that has led us to demean and enslave others.

The author writes:
The boundary between human and animal is not just a philosophical debate. Human subjects in medical research have greater legal protections than laboratory animals, according to Rob Streiffer, assistant professor of bioethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
This may be the heart of the actual matter. NIH is worried about where to draw the line; costs might go up. In some southern states, the "one-drop" rule was adopted to clarify the boundary between whites and blacks; in Nazi Germany, a test based on one's grandparents was devised to determine which side of the line one was on. How many uniquely human genes must an animal have before he or she ought not be treated like an animal? As history makes clear, such trivial distinctions have been ample license to commit atrocities, and in the case of animals, they still are.
“What it takes to cross a line is a contentious issue,” says Streiffer. For example, some people believe that a lot of animal testing is wrong, because many animals can feel pain and suffering. Others argue that any organism that displays uniquely human traits—things like autonomy, moral reasoning, and controlling one’s own behavior—ought to be excluded from research.
I don't know who was responsible for that obvious rhetorical error. No organism other than a human "displays uniquely human traits." The rub is delineating the set of uniquely human traits and then explaining why some subset of them gives us the right to hurt and kill other animals. No one to my knowledge has been able to convincingly do so. That's not to say that no one has found those weak and self-serving arguments convincing, but many people also found (and find) the arguments for white supremacy convincing as well.

The author also talked to Stanford University vivisector Sean Wu who wants to humanize animals, probably pigs or sheep (he uses sheep now, but the effort to grow transplantable hearts is generally confined to pigs.)
Still, Wu says some ethical concerns about human behavior or functions being transplanted into animals are in the realm of science fiction. “There’s a lot of concern and speculation and no data that anyone can offer.”
It is unlikely that Wu could delineate any human behaviors or functions that set our suffering above the suffering of other animals. I suspect money affects Wu's opinions on this matter. His 2015 NIH grant 5U01HL099776-07, was awarded $1,605,838.

The author concludes his article with this:
One way to avoid the consciousness-raising quandary is by deleting bits of DNA that are responsible for the development of certain parts of the human brain before implanting into a lab animal. That way, you could still study the origins of Alzheimer’s or other brain diseases without worrying about creating a human-like animal. “The science is moving very fast,” says Wu. The NIH just wants to make sure its standards can keep up.
It appears that both he and Wu believe that they have a "higher consciousness" than animals. But this is just an expression of faith. It's like saying that only the faithful will get into heaven. Animals already are human-like because we are all each-other-like.

Let me finish with a thought or two about our unfortunate propensity to look to authorities for guidance and to trust their proclamations. Of course, we have to rely on those with technical knowledge we lack. I can't fix my television, rebuild the engine in my car, or remove your appendix without killing you. I've learned to rely on attorneys on most legal matters. On many such things, I usually seek multiple opinions prior to making a decision. But on moral issues, there are no experts, in spite of professional titles that imply otherwise.

NIH is going to claim that an appropriate ethical weighing was conducted when it officially starts funding this new wrinkle in hurting animals in publicly funded laboratories. They will have put safeguards in place to assure that the animals being used are not too much like us. Like Jews weren't too much like the good Germans. The vivisectors will be happy. But it seems very clear that if the NIH doesn't readily recognize that it is unethical for Carrie Wolinetz to be involved in any decision concerning the use of animals, why in the world should anyone believe them or believe that they have done a good job?