More dubious moral reasoning from animal rights activists

Yesterday, I did a post about ethics in human experimentation. The reason I mention that is because in the comments, a commenter named Paul pointed out an editorial of the sort of variety that we frequently see whenever there is a revelation of misdeeds in human research and a response to that article that is far too mild for the level of idiocy in the editorial. The editorial was written by Justin Goodman of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA). Appearing in the Sacramento Bee, Goodman’s article makes a dubious and typical false analogy for an animal rights activist, specifically that Animal tests are today’s Tuskegee experiments.

No, Mr. Goodman, they are not.

Goodman gets off on the wrong foot (so what else is new?) when he begins his editorial with a massive straw man argument, by attributing an argument in favor of animal research by scientists to its being a “fact of science” and then proceeding to tear down said straw man with the characteristic gusto that cranks apply when stimulated by the scent of straw:

Animal experimentation is indeed a “fact” in the sense that it takes place, but its mere existence is not a sound ethical defense, with all its accompanying violence and death. This sort of argument implies that the way we conduct science – and the way we treat animals – is constant, unchangeable and not up for debate. Fortunately, this is not how science (or society) actually works.

Other “facts of science” that history ultimately deemed atrocities include experiments on unconsenting humans – among them, the poor, prisoners, the developmentally disabled, Jews and blacks. J. Marion Sims, the so-called “father of gynecology,” developed life-saving treatments for difficult pregnancies that are still in use today by conducting surgeries on the genitalia of unanesthetized female slaves he “rented” from local owners.

Very impressive, Mr. Goodman! Well done! Not only did you manage to liken animal experimentation to the Holocaust (unethical experimentation on Jews and the disabled) but you managed to bring slavery into it as well! Excellent! Truly, you are as skilled at making dubious and inflammatory analogies as you are at constructing straw men. But Mr. Goodman is only getting started. While the ethics of animal research are fraught with complexities, gray areas are not for Goodman or PETA. Oh, no. PETA is all about histrionics and equating human beings to animals–and not just any animals, either. While justifying research on primates from an ethical standpoint requires a lot of rigor, given how intelligent and closely related to humans they are, PETA makes no distinctions between primates, dogs, cats, rats, or even mice. To PETA, killing a mouse is no different than killing a human being. That’s why, true to form, Goodman makes it explicit:

Those who support animal experimentation – not unlike the people who conducted the unethical experiments mentioned above – are quick to acknowledge the similarities between species in order to justify the use of animals as proxies for humans, but they are even quicker to minimize and disregard the obvious moral implications because it is not in their personal, political or financial interests to do so. Self-reflection and scientific inquiry can lead to conclusions that are uncomfortable and inconvenient, but society will never progress if people choose to assimilate only the ideas that reinforce their personal biases and protect their own interests.

My first reaction to this comment was to respond: Pot. Kettle. Black. PETA is nothing if not the master of assimilating only the ideas that reinforce its ideological biases and protect its own interests! As for scientists acknowledging the similarity of animals to humans in order to justify their use, in actuality, it’s scientists who understand that all animal models have their advantages and disadvantages. Depending upon what disease or process is being modeled, animal models can be very, very good or very, very bad–or anywhere between. However, that is a scientific question, not a moral question.

From PETA’s perspective, the morals are easy. Animals, regardless of what kind, are given equal consideration to human beings. Dario Ringach, who has been targeted by animal rights crazies for his research, nails this point when he calls PETA morally impaired and points out that animal rights and points out that it sees no difference between Michael Vick abusing dogs by fighting them and Albert Sabin producing a vaccine against polio or between kids putting cats in a microwave and scientists working to develop treatments that could save the lives of women with breast cancer. No doubt Goodman would see no difference between my using mice to study treatments for breast cancer and the Tuskegee doctors, or the doctors who ran the Guatemala syphilis clinical trial.

He is also utterly clueless about how animal research is conducted these days:

Yet, the law allows rats, rabbits, cats, dogs, pigs, monkeys and other animals to be burned, shocked, poisoned, isolated, starved, paralyzed, cut open and addicted to drugs as well as have their brains damaged. What happens to animals in laboratories would be considered criminal cruelty to animals if it occurred elsewhere. No experiment – no matter how painful or trivial – is prohibited, and painkillers are not required.

Even when viable alternatives to animals are available, the law does not require that these alternatives be used, and very often they aren’t. For example, faculty at the University of Michigan and the Medical University of South Carolina – which oddly gives out an annual award for surgical excellence named after the infamous Dr. Sims mentioned above – continue to cut holes into pigs’ throats and chests in a crude and deadly medical training exercise, even though the schools use sophisticated humanlike simulators to teach the same skills elsewhere on their campuses.

The fact is that the regulations governing animal research have become much more strict than they used to be. If a researcher proposes “burning,” “shocking,” or doing anything that causes an animal more than minimal pain or discomfort, many pages of scientific justification are required. Any painful procedure requires adequate analgesia, and if the researcher needs to perform painful procedures without analgesia, serious scientific justification for why omitting proper analgesia is necessary is mandatory. In reality, few animal experiments occur these days without proper analgesia, because there is very little reason to omit it. Moreover, the “higher” (if you’ll excuse the term) the animal, the harder it is to justify painful procedures or omitting analgesia.

Goodman also has a rather different definition of “necessary” than physicians and scientists do. They also tend to have a different definition of “alternatives.” Ray Greek, for instance, once tried to argue that animal research was worthless for predicting human responses while at the same time proposing alternatives that, by any reasonable measure, are less reliable than any animal model. In that Goodman’s technique is of a piece with common rhetorical gambits used by many animal rights activists. As for the example of using human simulators instead of animals to learn tracheotomies, take it from a surgeon. Human simulators are not the same. They don’t bleed, for one thing. While it’s possible to make a reasonable simulacrum of a human neck, there’s no substitute for getting the feel of actual flesh in learning to do procedures, and the simulation of breathing and getting the balloon inflated properly. On the other hand, I did learn to intubate patients on a plastic dummy. Then I learned how to do it on patients under close supervision in the controlled environment of the operating room. Then, and only then was I able to do it under emergency circumstances–including some pretty hairy situations. Different procedures call for different training, though. Surgical procedures are more difficult to simulate than something like intubation.

Of course, for all their claims that they do not support violence, some animal rights activists belie such claims through the fury of their rhetoric. For example, guess who showed up in the comments of Ringach’s post? Yep, it’s the fellow surgeon who so embarrasses me that every time I see or hear him speak I want to place a paper bag over my head, so much of a vile human being is he. I’m talking Jerry Vlasak, the man who thinks that murdering researchers is morally acceptable. Here he is, once again demonstrating what a despicable man he is. Particularly telling is this remark:

In the not-too-distant future, these sadistic vivisectionists will be looked upon in EXACTLY the same way as we now view those like Sigmund Rascher, a German SS doctor whose deadly experiments on humans were judged inhumane and criminal during the Nuremberg Trials, resulting in his execution April 26, 1945.

First, Vlasak clearly thinks that animal researchers are just like Nazis, and, just like Nazi doctors, that they deserve to be executed. Second, when it comes to World War II history, Vlasak is an utter ignoramus. The Nazis executed Rascher, not the Allies, and the execution was apparently carried out under the direct orders of Reichsführer-SS Heinrich Himmler. The reasons are unclear, and I’ve read different accounts of the reasons, but the most common story I’ve read is that Rascher had publicized that his wife had given birth to three children even well past 40 years of age as a means of demonstrating that birthrates could be increased by expanding women’s fertile years. However, apparently during the fourth “pregnancy,” Mrs. Rascher was caught trying to acquire a fourth baby and an investigation revealed that the other three had either been bought or kidnapped. It’s also been alleged that he faked some of the data in some of his medical experiments. Either way, Himmler apparently felt personally betrayed and ordered his execution, which occurred in the Dachau concentration camp. There were, however, many mysterious executions in Nazi Germany in the last, spasmodic days of World War II; so it’s possible that we might never know why Rascher was executed. The only thing we do know for sure was that he was not executed by the Allies and he was not executed because of Allied findings that his medical experiments were inhumane and criminal, a finding that didn’t occur until 1946.

Hand me the paper bag.

As I’ve said before, the ethics of animal research is not an easy topic. It’s complex; it’s multifaceted; and it is not “one size fits all.” Animal research has benefited human beings in many ways, including the development of surgical procedures, vaccines, medications, and discoveries about biology applicable to humans too numerous to count. Modern animal research ethics include the “three R’s”: Replacing the use of animals wherever possible, reducing the number of animals wherever possible, and refining animal research techniques to alleviate and/or minimize potential pain and prevent suffering. The only way reasoning like that used by Goodman or Vlasak can be considered valid is if you make no moral distinction whatsoever between a human and a mouse. Of course, that’s exactly what radical animal rights activists do. In fact, given their passion and seeming willingness to justify violence against animal researchers, I often think that they value animal life more than they value human life.