Politics, Technology, and Language

If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought — George Orwell

Smoking out the right to do animal research

Posted by metaphorical on 7 November 2007

The Association of American Universities has a new press statement (PDF) defending the “vital role” that animal testing plays in medicine. Of course it does nothing to answer questions about a lot of other animal testing done by the cosmetics and other industries, but more importantly, the statement does nothing more than reiterate the same tired claims such statements always have made.

The research, for example, is said to conform “with ethical, legal, and safety regulations but also maintains the highest standards of animal care and health.” Sure it does. But if exceptions weren’t carved out for research, the activities would violate the animal rights laws in every state that has them, even as minimal and inadequate as those laws are.

The occasion of the statement is almost surely an October attack by the Animal Liberation Front on a UCLA researcher, Edythe London, and her November 1st op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times.

Let me say all the things about the ALF attack that one ought to say. According to Prof. London, the organization “claimed responsibility for vandalism that caused between $20,000 and $30,000 worth of damage to my home after extremists broke a window and inserted a garden hose, flooding the interior.” That’s a ridiculous, inappropriate, and stupid response to whatever ALF perceives as London’s sins. The organization just shouldn’t support such attacks. There’s just no theory of moral action under which it’s justified. It’s wrong, period.

That said, let’s look at London’s work and how she defends it ethically. Basically, she studies “nicotine addition among adolescents” and “some of [her] research is done on primates.” She says, “I have devoted my career to understanding how nicotine, methamphetamine and other drugs can hijack brain chemistry and leave the affected individual at the mercy of his or her addiction.”

Animal studies allow us to test potential treatments without confounding factors, such as prior drug use and other experiences that complicate human studies. Even more important, they allow us to test possibly life-saving treatments before they are considered safe to test in humans. Our animal studies address the effects of chronic drug use on brain functions, such as decision-making and self-control, that are impaired in human addicts. We are also testing potential treatments, and all of our studies comply with federal laws designed to ensure humane care.

While monkeys receive drugs in the laboratory, they do not become “addicted” in the same sense that humans become addicted. Still, we are able to see how changes in brain chemistry alter the way the brain works — knowledge that is vital to the design of effective medications.

London goes out of her way in the next paragraph to defend the fact that her research is sponsored, in part, by tobacco companies. But not a sentence, not a word, is offered to defend the implicit assumption that it’s okay to cage and experiment on monkeys.

It’s hard not to find this bewildering on other grounds as well. If monkeys don’t become addicted, then what reason is there to think that we’ll learn much from studying how changes in brain chemistry alter the way the brain works. Maybe there’s reason to think so, maybe not. London doesn’t have enough respect for us or monkeys to include it. This is a problem that often comes up with animal testing. Either no justification is given at all for the assumption that the animals are similar enough, in key respects, to humans, or the justifications are perfunctory. In London’s case, all we get is a statement that the animals are dissimilar to humans in a key respect.

You have to have no respect for animal life whatsoever to think it’s okay to proceed anyway. And that’s, presumably, what has ALF so upset. It’s impossible to defend their response, but it’s easy to defend the impulse.

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