Why We Need Proper Ethical Guidelines On Animal Research
Animal research is no doubt a controversial issue with at least half of U.S adults opposing it and more government institutions banning or severely limiting it (e.g. non-human ape research across the European Union and in the U.S. by the National Institutes of Health). Such attitudes and policy changes reflect growing ethical dilemmas about animal-use at a time when we know more about animal cognition and sentience. Even so, there are stark differences regarding how research is justified and carried out between humans and non-human animals.
Human beings are universally protected from being exploited and abused in research. However, this wasn’t always the case. An infamous example is the ‘Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment’, conducted between the 1930s-1970s, which led to monumental changes in how human research is carried out worldwide. This study investigated the natural progression of syphilis in Black American men, many who were socially-economically disadvantaged and did not give informed consent nor receive treatment for their disease.
As a result, a U.S. commission was established to review human research ethics, which gave rise to the internationally applied “Belmont Report.” Created in 1979, this report sets ethical principles aimed at protecting humans involved in research, particularly vulnerable individuals who cannot give consent (e.g. children and intellectually disabled individuals) and groups with a history of oppression (e.g. ethnic minorities, institutionalized populations, and those living in poverty). The report developed three major principles: the respect for persons, beneficence, and justice.
The first principle states that people should be able to make their own decisions, as well as protecting those who can’t. This is why informed consent exists – researchers must provide human subjects with sufficient information about the study to make a decision about their participation, without undue influence like fear or intimidation. In situations where individuals have reduced autonomy (e.g. children), caregivers can instead provide consent on the individual’s behalf, but dissent (objection to participation) is carefully monitored throughout the study. The second principle is about maximizing research benefits and minimizing its harms. This involves a full assessment of all real and potential harms of different forms (physical, psychological, social, etc) which are directly compared to any benefits (including those to the participant themselves). Ethical research must result in a favorable harm-benefit ratio to the participant. The third principle aims to protect vulnerable individuals from becoming selected for a study due to their socioeconomic status or manipulability, as well as ensuring they only experience minimal risk if participating. Together, these principles lay the ethical foundation for human research today.
So how are decisions about animal research made? Unlike human research, there is no document like the Belmont Report that discusses how to navigate the ethical problems of animal research. Instead, scientists depend on the “3Rs” framework developed in 1959 which suggests to 1) replace sentient animals with ‘less-sentient’ ones (now updated to mean the replacement of all animals with non-animal alternatives); 2) reduce the number of animals used in studies; and 3) refine methods to minimize suffering. This framework fails animals since it does not tackle the ethical question of whether animals ought to be used for experiments in the first place – it assumes that we need animal research. Thus, unlike the Belmont Report which arose due to ethical concerns, the “3Rs” framework fails to guide decisions on what type of animal research is ethical. As such, how ethical decisions are made about animal research are inconsistent and unclear. Because of this, bioethicists have proposed that the Belmont Report should be adapted for animal research.
Regarding the first Belmont principle of autonomy, informed consent from an animal (including a complete understanding of the study’s risks and benefits) is far from reality. However, the authors argue that, at the very least, scientists should respect animals’ freedom and choices (to the extent that their preferences are reliably inferred by us). Thus, this principle would eliminate restraining and confining animals against their will and would allow caregivers (e.g. companion animals) to represent their best interests.
The Belmont principle of balancing risk and benefits would require scientists to fully consider the depth of harms associated with animal research, such as those involved with breeding, transportation, family separations, being killed, and living in an unnatural environment with limited autonomy, as well as potential harms to humans from depending upon unreliable data – all of which are typically excluded from current harm-benefit analyses. As well, animals rarely benefit from the research they are involved in, with potential or known human benefits typically cited instead.
As recommended by the Belmont Report, to minimize harm, the authors argue that researchers should focus on non-animal alternatives to meet their scientific objective. Regarding the last Belmont principle of justice, the authors argue that animals are even more vulnerable than humans who cannot consent to research, due to their dependency on humans when held captive and the widespread discrimination against them known as speciesism. As such, the authors recommend that their risk threshold should be lower than that for vulnerable humans or that no harm should be acceptable. The only acceptable research would be those that have direct benefits for the individual animals involved, the animal doesn’t show signs of dissent, and permission was granted by their caregiver.
A Belmont Report for animals would be revolutionary, similar to how the original report changed the ethics of human research by forcing scientists to find ways to engage in consenting and non-exploitative (human) research. Such a report for animals would make most research unethical. To proceed, the authors suggest that scientists can adopt the model of human clinical research. Here, animals would be regarded as patients while their naturally occurring diseases are studied in the home of their guardian. Such benefits would include no longer exposing healthy animals to a disease or killing them, and the fact that individual animals would benefit from the research.
What can advocates do? To push for this future, where animals are protected from inhumane and unethical research, you can join your local university’s institutional review committee. These committees make decisions about animal research and they typically require a public member. Lastly, you can purchase cruelty-free products that don’t test on animals – look for the Leaping Bunny logo, PETA’s cruelty-free logo, and the Choose Cruelty-Free logo on packages.