Change is afoot in the controversial world of animal research, but it needs guidance from an adequate ethical framework.

The EPA just announced it will drastically scale back and eventually eliminate studies testing chemicals on mammals. The Veterans Administration is considering a stop to invasive canine research. Earlier this decade, the NIH ended its funding of biomedical research involving chimpanzees.

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Do such changes reflect a coherent evolution of policy? Is there a principled framework that can help us decide what types of animal research — or which particular animal studies — are morally justified?

Human research ethics has received guidance from The Belmont Report principles — respect for persons, beneficence and justice — since the late 1970s. Animal research ethics needs a comparably robust touchstone.

For over half a century animal research regulation has followed the “3 Rs,” advanced by William Russell and Rex Burch: replace animal models where feasible, reduce the number of animal subjects to what is statistically required, and refine techniques in order to minimize subjects’ pain and distress.

Although a great advance in animal welfare protection, the 3 Rs are outdated. An adequate framework would be responsive to five developments spanning recent decades: growing public concerns about animal welfare, as reflected in rising interest in meatless food options and the proliferation of animal protection groups; advances in the scientific study of animals’ cognition and behavior, which has illuminated their mental complexity and increased respect for them; the emergence and maturation of animal ethics as a scholarly discipline; growing concerns among scientists about poor translation from successful animal studies of medicines to effective use in humans; and advances in the science of alternatives to animal research.

In this 2012 photo, Cathryn Sundback, director of the tissue engineering lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, holds a laboratory rat implanted with a human-scaled ear made from sheep cells.
In this 2012 photo, Cathryn Sundback, director of the tissue engineering lab at Massachusetts General Hospital, holds a laboratory rat implanted with a human-scaled ear made from sheep cells.

Sixty years after publication of Russell and Burch’s seminal work, the 3 Rs are conspicuously incomplete. They lack any method for determining whether a proposed animal study is worth conducting in light of its prospect of social benefit along with its costs and risks. They also lack a comprehensive program of animal welfare protection, including an upper limit on how much harm animals may endure and an expectation to meet their basic needs.

In light of the aforementioned developments and the 3 Rs’ inadequacy as an ethical framework, it is unsurprising that public support for animal research in the U.S. has declined in recent years — now hovering at about 50% acceptance.

The public is divided. Moreover, many believe that the biomedical-research and animal-protection communities have hopelessly incompatible perspectives. The former, for the most part, considers animal research a necessary component of biomedical progress and judges that harms imposed on animals in research are ethically defensible. The latter is more skeptical about both the benefits of animal research and the justification of using animals in ways that seriously harm them. Given the perception of an unbridgeable gulf dividing these perspectives, one might think that disagreements about animal research ethics inevitably reduce to a contest of political power.

We disagree.

Reasonable representatives of the biomedical research community, the animal protection community and the public at large can agree on two core values underlying animal research ethics: social benefit, the appropriate end of animal research; and animal welfare, which limits permissible means to pursuing this end.

University of Chicago neurobiology professor Peggy Mason tends to the rats in her lab.
University of Chicago neurobiology professor Peggy Mason tends to the rats in her lab. (Abel Uribe, Chicago Tribune)

From this common ground, and mindful of the need for a more robust guide than the 3 Rs, we have developed an ethical framework of six principles for animal research — three principles of social benefit and three of animal welfare — in a book forthcoming with Oxford University Press this fall. Following our proposal are commentaries by seven eminent scholars representing such fields as primatology, veterinary medicine, comparative psychology, law and ethics. Despite these scholars’ willingness to criticize various aspects of our framework, all agree that its adoption would entail significant progress in animal research ethics.

Implementation of the principles of social benefit — which together comprise a rigorous cost-benefit standard — would spur more successful translation from animal studies to clinical use while eliminating studies that are poorly designed, insufficiently important or overly harmful. Implementation of the principles of animal welfare would promote decent lives for animal subjects, an appropriate goal considering that their involvement is nonconsensual and rarely therapeutic for them. The terms of the new framework would encourage constructive communication between the animal research community and animal protection community while affording the public stronger grounds for embracing the animal research enterprise. Finally, the framework would allow policy changes in animal research to proceed in a principled manner.

David DeGrazia (ddd@gwu.edu) is the Elton Professor of Philosophy at George Washington University. Tom L. Beauchamp is Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at Georgetown University. Their book, “Principles of Animal Research Ethics," is scheduled for publication this fall.

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