Canadian Animal Research: Policy in Search of Principle?

Aidan Hayes contrasts Canada’s ethical frameworks for research employing human and animal subjects.

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Canada’s Tri-Council Policy Statement (TCPS) establishes “respect for human dignity”, in light of the “inherent worth of all human beings”, as the key standard for ethical conduct in research on human subjects.  Researchers must adhere to three principles in order to demonstrate the proper regard for dignity. These principles are: Respect for Persons (specifically, for subjects’ capacity for choice or self-determination), Concern for Welfare (whether subjects experience their lives positively or negatively), and Justice (roughly, recognition of the fact that social circumstances may make some persons vulnerable to exploitation).

This can be thought of as a model; a way to conceive of ethical thinking. It is a way to approach the morally fraught practice of research, in which the investigator necessarily exercises power over subjects. To apply this framework, we consider what research practices express about the researcher’s attitudes: whether they amount to a demonstration of respect for subjects’ dignity. Thus this framework serves to guide choice of policies, which function as “how-to” guides for conduct that exhibits respect for subjects.

Take for example the Nova Scotia Health Authority Research Ethics Board’s guidelines for Consent Form Preparation and Use. Among other requirements, these guidelines lay out the information that a document must include if it is to be used to secure the informed consent of prospective clinical trial subjects, such as a description of the probability and severity of all known risks. Researchers who circumvent this requirement to secure consent for study participation without full disclosure of the risks, however trivial, would be in breach of the consent policy.

Photo Credit: Needpix.com. Image Description: A laboratory rat held by a glove-covered hand.

The role of principles is to account for the ethical failings entailed by such a breach. According to the framework of the TCPS, morally unpalatable research is not merely that which inflicts direct physical harm. What makes the example above wrong is what is expressed by depriving subjects of information which would have informed their choices. By circumventing or disregarding subjects’ reasoned consideration of the level of risk they are willing to accept, such a trial wrongs them. Doing so signifies that their value to the researcher is akin to that of a tool or resource.

Likewise, the Canadian Council on Animal Care’s website lists a number of “fundamental principles” animating their guidelines for the Ethics of Animal Investigation. Only animal research which “promises to contribute to understanding” is justified; subjects should have opportunities for social behaviour; the degree of harm caused by an experiment and the cognitive complexity of the subject must be considered when evaluating the experiment’s degree of invasiveness. Unlike the TCPS, the Canadian Council on Animal Care’s guidelines say strikingly little about how to understand or approach ethical problems concerning the use of non-human animals (hereafter “animals”) in research.

None of the above are actually principles, “fundamental” or otherwise. They are policies, concerning how animal research can be made ethical. They do not describe why this should be done. Nor do they define in generalizable terms what makes animal research ethical or unethical. While the TCPS contains abstract moral principles which can be used to establish a standard to which research can be held, the Canadian Council for Animal Care’s “principles” contain only instructions for meeting such a standard.

The implication is that principles are not necessary; that we already know enough to craft policies to prevent unjustifiable harm to animals. This absence of a principled moral framework suggests that all that is needed to regulate ethical research on animals is to systematize common-sense intuitions. Examples of such beliefs, as embodied in the documents expressing the Council’s “fundamental principles”, include that

The failure to distinguish principles from policies leaves researchers and regulatory boards alike without a method of resolving conflicts between their ethical responsibilities. For instance, some research will “contribute to understanding” only if some harms are not minimized, such as studies of the effects of denying “opportunities for social behaviour”. Moreover, it is not true that the relevant values are self-evident or beyond dispute. There is emerging evidence that the social and cognitive complexity of many non-human animals have long been underestimated. Together with the evolution of Canadian attitudes to law and ethics pertaining to animals, this shows that intuitions about animal needs and interests are no longer fit for purpose.

The Canadian Council on Animal Care does vital work guiding researchers through the design of animal research. However, while the TCPS separates the practical and the conceptual aspects of human research ethics, the Council has yet to articulate the moral principles with which these practical guidelines can actually be critiqued.

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Aidan Hayes is a tutor at the Dalhousie Writing Centre.