Ethics in Animal Research
It was reassuring to read Jane Johnson’s frank assessment of the limitations of animal research, presented in “Lost in Translation: Why Animal Research Fails to Deliver on Its Promise” (Issues, Summer 2021). As a practicing physician who has worked in public health, clinical research, and research ethics, I appreciate Johnson’s appraisal of the practical and fundamental problems with animal research.
As Johnson notes, scientific problems with animal research are entangled with its ethical problems. Exaggerations of the potential benefits of animal research, and the confounding effects of stress on animals used in research, cannot be extricated from decisions about the ethical permissibility of animal research.
In 2011, in the journal PLOS ONE, my colleagues and I published the first of multiple papers showing how chimpanzees used in laboratory research demonstrated signs of depression, anxiety, and posttraumatic stress disorder. Other authors have shown how various nonhuman species experience acute and chronic pain and a range of physical and mental disorders. In laboratories, these physical and psychological injuries accrue. As Johnson notes, the animals, the people who care for them, and patients pay the price of these cumulative harms.
As Johnson also observes, improved standards in human clinical trials are relevant. Although she highlights the relevance of improvements in methodological interventions, advancements in ethical standards in human research offer more salient guidance.
In a 2015 Cambridge Quarterly for Healthcare Ethics article honoring the pioneering medical ethicist and investigator Henry K. Beecher—for his approach to moral problems in human research and his landmark 1966 article in the New England Journal of Medicine—John P. Gluck and I identified problems in animal research that are analogous to those Beecher described. These include, for example, inattention to the issue of consent, incomplete surveys of harms, and inequitable burdens on research subjects in the absence of benefits to them. Beecher noted how these ethical deficiencies were bad for science.
Fortunately, by the middle of the twenty-first century, concerns about human research practices in the United States led to the establishment of the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, which resulted in the publication of the Belmont Report in 1979. Like the World Medical Association’s Declaration of Helsinki, the Belmont Report emphasizes key ethical principles: respect for autonomy; duties to nonmaleficence, beneficence, and justice; and special protections for vulnerable groups and individuals. Human research has become more ethical and improved ethical expectations have enhanced the scientific merit of human research studies.
Despite significant advancements in our understanding of animals’ capacities and growing consensus on the limitations of animal research, no similar effort has addressed the use of animals in research. But it could. Extending principles such as respect for autonomy and duties to nonmaleficence and justice to decisions about the use of animals in research could lead to the needed shift in culture that Johnson stresses. It could also lead to positive changes in education and training and a national research agenda that favors more translatable, human-centered, modern research methods.
Associate Professor, University of New Mexico School of Medicine
President/CEO, Phoenix Zones Initiative