Conscientious Objection To Animal Research Among Veterinary & Human Medicine Students
Each year, millions of non-human animals are used in scientific research, often with the primary goal of benefitting human knowledge and health. Animals are also used to teach both human medicine students (HMS) and veterinary medicine students (VMS) about anatomy and physiology through dissections and lab work. Furthermore, both HMS and VMS observe and practice clinical and surgical procedures on animals in preparation for their future careers. Given that humans are subjecting sentient animals to invasive and stress-inducing experiences – usually for the duration of these animals’ lives – there is a significant discussion to be had about the morality of these practices.
In Italy, there is a law known as Law 413/1993, which grants students in any degree course the legal right to conscientious objection to animal experimentation (COAE). This law protects students who object to animal experimentation from discrimination and mandates that universities provide non-animal alternatives to these students. Furthermore, the law stipulates that universities have a duty to publicize the right to COAE. This study, published in the journal Alternatives to Laboratory Animals, surveys Italian HMS’ and VMS’ on their awareness of and attitudes towards COAE, and the related topic of animal bioethics.
To conduct the study, the authors disseminated a survey to 2,798 HMS’ and VMS’ in Italy. They received 733 respondents from students spread across one human medicine school and two veterinary medicine schools in Italy. Of the 733 respondents, 526 identified as female, and 207 identified as male. All were between the ages of 18 and 47, with an average age of 22.8. Additionally, there was a roughly even split of HMS’ (384 respondents) and VMS’ (349 respondents) represented in the final sample.
Only 65.6% of survey respondents reported being aware of their legal right to COAE as students in Italian universities. Among those who already had awareness of this right, most reported learning about the law either from their teachers (168 respondents) or through the university website (139 respondents). There was significantly greater awareness of the right to COAE among respondents in the VMS category compared to those in the HMS category (~72% VMS’ reported awareness of the right vs. ~60% of HMS’). This disparity in awareness is important to remedy. After all, students in both groups (HMS and VMS) are faced with this moral choice in the course of their degree,s and both groups are equally protected in their right to opt-out of experimenting on animals. Furthermore, awareness that the law protects students who declare COAE from academic and workplace discrimination was even lower: only 32% of HMS’ and 29% of VMS’ knew about this prohibition (note that the difference in responses between HMS’ and VMS’ was not statistically significant for this survey item). When it came to actually exercising the right to COAE, only 33 out of the 733 respondents (4.5%) reported having formally objected to animal experimentation before. All but one of these 33 conscientious objectors identified as female.
In addition to awareness of the right to COAE, survey respondents were asked questions designed to measure their general attitudes towards this right. The study found that most respondents (72.8%) did recognize COAE as an important right. Additionally, a combined total of 80% of respondents either completely agreed or fairly agreed with the statement, “the teaching of animal bioethics can lead to critical reflections that would otherwise not be considered.” Furthermore, 70% of respondents indicated that they would be interested in a course on bioethics. For many of these survey items, the demographic subgroup with the most positive responses towards the right to COAE and animal bioethics were female veterinary students.
Despite overall high rates of positive attitudes towards the survey topics of COAE and animal bioethics, at least part of the high valuation may have been motivated by a desire for options rather than concern for animals alone. The most frequently indicated answer choice for the survey question asking students what they think the right to COAE aims to protect was “personal freedom.” Furthermore, 63% of respondents thought that a course in animal bioethics should be an optional rather than mandatory part of medical education for HMS’ and VMS’. Following similar patterns in the responses to previous survey items, female veterinary students were most likely to agree with mandating animal bioethics coursework compared to other demographic subgroups.
In their discussion of the findings, the authors point out that knowledge of COAE and consideration for its importance are inadequate at Italian universities, especially among HMS’. They list some external issues, such as the lack of proper government funding for laboratories dedicated to non-animal research methods. They also make suggestions, such as implementing academic courses on alternatives to animal experimentation and the right to COAE. In fact, they suggest that such courses could be taken by both HMS’ and VMS’ together, so as to encourage a more cohesive training in medical ethics across both human and animal medicine. The authors argue that without courses and discussions centered on animal bioethics, standard research activities could reinforce a worldview that animals’ lives do not hold intrinsic value. Additionally, without training, VMS’ could easily become overwhelmed by the weighty ethical decisions they will inevitably face as practicing veterinarians (for example: when to recommend euthanasia).
While this study was limited to students from three specific Italian universities, the results show areas for improvement that could be useful in other schools and regions. For example, the fact that many students were not even aware that they had a right to exercise COAE without facing academic discrimination shows that more education on COAE is needed. Animal advocates can help by reading up on the laws surrounding animal experimentation in academics in their own region, and educating their communities about these rights as well. Furthermore, advocates in scientific or medical communities can initiate discussions around the ethics of animal experimentation and alternatives. Such discussions could help dispel the notion that animal suffering is an inevitable and unquestionable part of scientific research. Finally, students can exercise their own right to conscientious objection when applicable, and they can choose non-animal alternatives when available.