The Need for Ethical Expertise in Animal Research Assessment

Caroline Vardigans reconsiders the role of the professional ethicist in the research approval process and argues for their inclusion on Animal Care Committees.

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Last year, over half a million Canadians signed a petition urging Parliament to support the ban on cosmetics testing on animals proposed under Bill S-214. This petition was one of the largest in our nation’s history. It signals a shift in our collective awareness: we are beginning to accept that it is wrong to inflict unnecessary pain on animals who, like us, can be harmed.

We know that animals experience not only physical pain, but psychological distress. While distress can be caused by painful and invasive procedures, it can also be caused by social and environmental stressors. Animals share with humans a need for socialization, suitable environmental conditions, and the appropriate amount of mental and physical stimulation. Any deprivation of these needs is liable to produce a great amount of suffering, and under laboratory conditions they can often go unmet.

The use of animal subjects in cosmetics testing in particular is unnecessary. There are non-sentient means available to achieve the desired end of consumer safety, and the end products themselves serve only a trivial use: beauty. However, research that aims to prevent or treat diseases and disorders that threaten human (or non-human) health, or that contributes to scientific knowledge, is not trivial. The substantive benefits of these areas of research are widely thought to justify the use of animal subjects. We must, in these cases, balance our strong interest in using animals with the interests of the animals themselves. In Canada, the Canadian Council on Animal Care is tasked with ensuring that all publicly funded institutions find this balance.

Photo Credit: Understanding Animal Research. Image Description: A researcher examining a laboratory rabbit.

Under the guidelines set out by the Council, research proposals are evaluated by institutional Animal Care Committees on the basis of scientific, social, and ethical merit. To meet the nationally accepted standards of animal care, proposals must adhere to Russell and Burch’s “3Rs” framework of Replacement, Reduction and Refinement. This framework seems to simplify the decision-making process for committee members: Have the researchers made every effort to replace animals with either non-sentient models or less sentient models (Replacement)? Do the researchers propose to use the minimum number of animals required for statistical significance (Reduction)? Does the research minimize the potential for pain and distress wherever possible (Refinement)?

There are, however, many questions that fall outside of this framework: How do we determine the social value of the proposed research? What kinds of harms are acceptable given this value? Is it always preferable to use less-sentient animals (Replacement) even when doing so may lead to weaker animal models?  Should we prefer the use of fewer animals who are likely to experience more suffering per animal (Reduction), or more animals who are likely to experience less suffering per animal (Refinement)?

The above-mentioned questions are undoubtably more ethically nuanced than those outlined in the “3Rs” framework. Depending on the specific proposal that is under review, committee members will need to discuss these questions (or others of similar complexity) to determine the outcome. However, because their training focuses on the “3Rs”, they may not be equipped to identify or critically examine these types of concerns. The Canadian Council on Animal Care states that the inclusion of a committee ethicist is beneficial, at least in some cases. However, there are no official guidelines to determine when an ethicist should be brought in. Individual institutions have the freedom to decide, on a case-by-case basis, when they would be of benefit.

This practice makes little sense. Relying on committee members to determine when an ethicist is needed presupposes that committee members are able to identify all of the well-hidden ethical considerations, and that concerns can always be anticipated before the review process has begun. There is a worry that problems may go unidentified and that when (or if) they are identified, committee members will be less likely to halt the review process to reach out to an ethicist.

Having an ethicist present from the outset would avoid these potential missteps. Committee ethicists could draw on their knowledge of ethical theory and on the most relevant and recent literature in animal bioethics. They would be uniquely situated to contribute by (1) identifying and addressing areas of concern; (2) clarifying the positions of committee members; (3) analyzing ambiguous concepts; and (4) identifying hidden assumptions and flaws in reasoning.

In Canada, all human-based research requires that at least one Research Ethics Board member be “knowledgeable in ethics”— i.e., function as an ethicist. In the case of animal-based research, however, no equivalent requirement exists. Canadians signed on to support Bill S-214 because they recognized that unnecessary suffering cannot be morally justified. Consistency demands that we strive to reform all practices that increase the risk of unnecessary harm.

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Caroline Vardigans is a Research Assistant in the Department of Philosophy at Dalhousie University.