A very controversial question was recently debated in a Swedish daily paper, Svenska Dagbladet:

–          Has the Swedish protection of animals in research gone too far?

The question was raised by Mats G. Hansson at CRB, Rikard Holmdahl (Professor of Medical Inflammation Research) and Anne Carlsson (President of the Swedish Rheumatism Association). I published a post about the debate on our Swedish blog: Det dubbla ansvaret för djur och människor. In the post, and in its comments, you find links to the three articles in Svenska Dagbladet.

If you don’t read Swedish, here is a summary of the debate:

The basic principle when animal experiments are evaluated ethically is that the scientific merit of the experiment must be greater than the suffering the animals may be exposed to. In the article that started the debate, “scientific merit” was interpreted as an interest for patients. Medical research is done not for its own sake, but to find new treatments for patients. The article thus added a suffering group to the laboratory animals: the patients.

The stage was set, and dramatically so, for intense debate: suffering animals versus suffering patients. The article argued that forgetfulness about the ultimate purpose of medical research has caused an imbalanced emphasis (especially in Sweden) on one of the vulnerable groups: the animals. Ethical committees evaluating animal experiments include representatives of animal welfare organizations, but patient organizations have no representatives in the committees. Moreover, the authority responsible for surveying the Animal Welfare Act has sidestepped the ethics committees by introducing regulations that prohibit certain very common and important experimental procedures with animals, thereby precluding the difficult ethical balancing of expected scientific merit against animal suffering. Researchers can apply for exception from the prohibitions, but the procedure is bureaucratic. The result is that research that could be in the service of patients never gets done. Responsibility for animals is taken in ways that fail patients.

Three representatives of animal rights organizations soon responded that almost all animal experiments are approved by the ethics committees. They also pointed out that the animal welfare representatives in these committees are a minority. Moreover, adding to this disadvantage, only the researchers can appeal against the decision of the committee; no one representing the animals can. The authors expressed concern about suffering patients and the need of high quality science, but questioned that good and useful science required painful animal experiments. There are alternatives to animal experimentation. These may even be scientifically superior.

In the final reply, the authors initiating the debate suggested that the reason that almost all applications for animal experiments are approved by ethics committees is that researchers take ethical questions seriously and write well prepared applications. They also remarked that researchers do consider alternatives to animal experiments, and try to limit the number of animals used. Still, medical science in general is impracticable without experiments with animals. The last new consideration in the final reply was that although interest groups legitimately work to protect animals’ interests, the same one-sided ambition becomes problematic when it occurs on a societal level, in the exercise of public authority.

If I may conclude with a short personal consideration, I’d say that each party repeated its own form of morality, perhaps taking it to a somewhat more eloquent level. One party compared the suffering of two vulnerable groups (animals and patients), and claimed that the other party failed to make the responsible balancing act, one-sidedly favoring the interests of animals. But the other party hardly failed to achieve a responsible comparison, since the legitimacy of comparing animal and human suffering was questioned. Comparing is irresponsible. These two forms of morality are so fundamentally different that I don’t see how they can stop repeating themselves, forever.

Pär Segerdahl

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