Are Human Research Participants Deserving of Research Animals’ Rights?

by Suzanne M. Rivera, Ph.D.

For years, mainstream and extremist organizations have waged campaigns against the use of animals.  While PETA successfully deploys propaganda featuring provocative models in sexually explicit positions to denounce the use of animals for food, clothing and experimentation, other groups, such as the Animal Liberation Brigade, engage in violent (some would say terroristic) actions to disrupt animal research and scare off scientists from lines of inquiry for which the use of animal models is the state of the art.

Part of the philosophy of the anti-animal research groups is a belief in moral equivalency among species.    PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk once famously said, “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.”  Does she propose we allow people to suffer with treatable diseases because non-animal models for testing have not yet been developed?  Apparently so.  Newkirk also has gone on the record to say, “Even if animal tests produced a cure for AIDS, we’d be against it.”  This view is out of step with the majority of Americans, who – according to the latest Gallup poll– support animal research.

Among those who regulate and support animal research, there is a very strong commitment to animal welfare.  The “animal welfare” perspective contrasts with the “animal rights” view.  The animal rightists want to end animal use, including research (and also eating meat, hunting, zoos, police dogs and entertainment), because they see it as inherently indefensible.  Animal welfarists, on the other hand, believe animals can be used humanely, under strict rules that seek to prevent unnecessary pain and distress in research animals.  They acknowledging that the animals’ lives are worthy of respect, but do not ascribe the moral status of personhood to them.  The US government requires scientists to assume anything that could cause pain or distress in a human also would be painful for an animal, and they are compelled to provide analgesia and anesthesia accordingly.

Ironically, when it comes to the protection of research subjects, experiments using rats and pigs are given much greater oversight than those using human participants.  As anyone in the field of animal science can tell you, there is a longer and more intense history of regulation in animal labs than ever has been applied to research conducted in human hospitals, clinics, or academic medical centers.  One reason for this difference is that humans can consent to participate but animals can’t.  So there is a feeling that we have a greater responsibility to protect the mouse because it is not able to object.

Fascinating, then, to contemplate what human research would be like if it were regulated like the use of animals.  Every human research space would be inspected at least twice a year for everything from the level of humidity in the room to the frequency of floor cleaning and the number of candle watts of light.  The number of people allowed to sit in a study waiting room would be capped to prevent crowding.  A minimum number of calories of food would be provided to every human research participant each day, even for studies not related to nutrition.  Environmental enrichment—in the form of engaging toys, jobs, and recreation– would be put in the budget for every clinical trial.  Even mating behaviors would be tracked to optimize conditions under which human research participants could express their species-specific urge to procreate.

Of course, we don’t do any of that.  Most human research studies are uncompensated and participation occurs in spite of the numerous inconveniences and risks the study subjects willingly undertake.  Unlike animals bred purposefully for research, humans willingly participate out of interest, altruism, or the hope it will improve their own health.  Human research participants are not guaranteed the safe housing, adequate food, fulfilling jobs, enjoyable recreation, and freedom from predators we afford to all animal research subjects.  For many studies, they are not even guaranteed free treatment if the research procedures should cause an injury.

So, while animal rightists are pushing to treat animals more like humans, it’s worth considering whether human research participants are deserving of more of the rights we accord research animals.  Whether or not we can agree about the use of animals in research, it seems illogical that a mouse harmed in a study is entitled to excellent veterinary care while human research participants are accorded no such equivalent right.

    11 thoughts on “Are Human Research Participants Deserving of Research Animals’ Rights?

    1. I just wish there was a way that researchers could show more of the public what goes on in research labs so they understand the lengths at which scientists go to provide for animal welfare.

      • I agree! Being able to see for themselves would help the public be less critical of animal research. I work for an organization that gives students and teachers the opportunity to tour local university research labs and animal housing facilities in our state. They also get to hear from scientists and veterinarians about current research being conducted and the care the animals are given. Walking in the door, many people are against the idea of animal research. After seeing the animal housing facilities and talking to people actually involved in research, most walk out the door with a positive view on the use of animals in research.

    2. While reading Suzanne Rivera’s blog, “Are Human Research Participants Deserving of Research Animals’ Rights,” I had to do a double-take to ensure that I was reading Harvard Law’s Bill of Health, and not The Onion. If she were not so well-credentialed I would chalk the silliness of the article up to pure ignorance, but because Rivera must know better it appears she used the blog to spout pro-animal experimentation propaganda that plays fast and loose with even the few facts that were included.

      There is only one federal law in the U.S.—the Animal Welfare Act (AWA)—designed to offer some modicum of protection to animals in laboratories. As Rivera implicitly acknowledges, the AWA is primarily focused on issues of animal husbandry: the size of the cages in which the imprisoned animals will spend the duration of their lives; the temperature of the rooms in which the animals are kept; the frequency of cleaning, feeding, watering; and so on. Rivera misleadingly paints life for an animal in a laboratory as resort-like and does not acknowledge that the law permits animals to be used in all manner of cruel, painful, and trivial experiments. Animals are poisoned, burned, shocked, and paralyzed. They are deprived of food and water to force them to “cooperate” with the experimenters and are even completely deprived of pain relief should the experiments wish to do so. Infant monkeys are taken from their mothers days after birth—often as a matter of operating procedure. They are cut open in experimental surgeries in which their eyes are removed, their spines are mutilated, and their brains are exposed. Even today, cosmetics, household products, and caustic chemicals are dripped into the eyes of rabbits and rubbed onto the shaved, abraded skin of guinea pigs who are not given pain killers. It is perfectly legal to do ANYTHING to animals in U.S. laboratories as long as the right paperwork is filled out. Even when alternatives to the use of animals are available, U.S. law—unlike that in the EU—does not require that they be used.

      Furthermore, thanks to vigorous lobbying on the part of the well-heeled animal experimentation industry—a group that claims to be pro-science—99 percent of animals used in experimentation, including mice of the genus Mus, rats of the genus Rattus, birds bred for experimentation, fish, reptiles, amphibians, and agricultural animals used in agricultural experiments are excluded from the definition of “animal” in the AWA and are deprived even of the meager protections of the Act. While there are guidelines that govern the treatment of these animals when they are used in federally-funded studies, these animals have no legal protections whatsoever at the federal level.

      This means that when mice are subjected to painful and invasive surgeries, but are deprived of post-operative pain relief—as happens 50 to 80 percent of the time according to recent literature surveys conducted by researchers at Newcastle University (http://www.oc.lm.ehu.es/Fundamentos/doctorado/cursos/CirExp/Tecnicas%5CF-078.PDF, http://www.frame.org.uk/atla_article.php?art_id=114&abstract=true)—the experimenters are not legally liable for such egregious cruelty. Likewise, when living rats are thrown into a freezer intended for the bodies of dead animals, when mice drown or dehydrate to death as a result of employees failing to check water systems, and when rats are left in their cages and run through the mechanical cage washer where they are boiled alive – there are no legal repercussions for the responsible parties. If they are federally-funded, they just get a letter that effectively asks them not to do it again. If they are not receiving government money, there is no external government oversight at all.

      At the institutional level, the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) system is also failing to protect animals. Repeated audits by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Office of the Inspector General (OIG) and observations by USDA inspectors stretching back more than a decade, as well as evidence gathered by PETA through whistleblowers and undercover investigations, have documented ongoing failures in the IACUC system. In September 2005, the USDA OIG published a scathing audit report describing a climate in which laboratories view fines for AWA violations as a “cost of conducting business.” The report noted that at almost one-third of facilities, IACUCs failed to ensure that experimenters considered alternatives to painful procedures. The report further documented the failure of IACUCs to ensure that animals receive adequate veterinary care and to ensure that unnecessary or repetitive experiments were not performed on animals. These problems persist today.

      Rivera’s implicit contention that animals used in experiments are better protected than human research participants flies in the face of common sense as well as peer-reviewed research on the subject. The most comprehensive analysis of IACUC reviews of proposed animal research protocols conducted to date concluded that IACUCs rarely disapprove of proposed animal research protocols, approving in-house protocols 98% of the time (http://www.socialpsychology.org/pdf/science2001-07-27.pdf?logged=true). When the same protocols were evaluated by IACUCs from other institutions, 61% were found to be substantially lacking. A recent study conducted by my colleagues found that at leading research institutions an average of 67% of IACUC members were animal experimenters; an additional 15% were institutional veterinarians who conducted or facilitated experiments on animals; and 93% of IACUC chairpersons were animal experimenters (http://www.mdpi.com/2076-2615/2/1/68). These stacked committees no doubt contribute to the approval bias expressed by IACUCs. Moreover, the paltry representation of unaffiliated members on U.S. IACUCs, intended to represent the general community and its concern for animal welfare—particularly in comparison to membership requirements in the EU and elsewhere for animal experimentation oversight bodies—contributes to public distrust of animal experimenters and does not reflect the mounting opposition among the general public (http://ctx.sagepub.com/content/11/2/68.full.pdf+html) that largely funds the practice.

      An article published in the journal Philosophy, Ethics, and Humanities in Medicine further suggests that institutional review boards (IRBs, which oversee human-based research) place a “tremendous burden” on clinical researchers, while IACUCs (which oversee animal-based experimentation) are much easier to work with, approving “essentially everything they consider” (http://www.peh-med.com/content/6/1/12). The author argues that this “discrepancy in regulatory ease between the two types of research” has pushed scientists to use animals in investigations even when they believe the studies should be performed with humans or human tissue. A recent article published in the British Medical Journal argues that IACUCs are in need of reform: “IACUCs have chosen not to make such ethical judgments [of conducting cost-benefit analyses of proposed animal research protocols] but, rather, restrict themselves to an advisory role, often tweaking the details of animal-use protocols, but eventually approving all of them” (http://m.jme.bmj.com/content/early/2012/11/06/medethics-2012-100982.full.pdf?papetoc).

      Fundamentally, Rivera has performed some hand-waving to perpetuate myths to further her own agenda and has intentionally failed to discuss the elephant in the room (or more appropriately, the monkey in the isolation chamber, the dog in a metal box, and the rat in the inhalation chamber). Animals in laboratories are imprisoned for the entirety of their lives in tiny cages where they are used, abused, and killed. The regulations that govern the treatment of animals in these circumstances—stipulating minimum cage sizes that confine animals to taking one or two steps in any direction for their entire lives—simply do not apply to humans research subjects who give informed consent, do not spend their lives imprisoned in laboratories and in the overwhelming majority of cases are not caused any harm beyond losing a few hours of their day or having to complete a boring experiment. Even when there are serious harms involved, human participants and IRBs must determine whether the potential benefits outweigh the risks, and subjects must volunteer to participate. With animals, no curiosity is too trivial to justify tormenting and killing them, and they obviously are not given any choice. This is not a matter of opinion; it’s a fact.

      Given the wholesale abuse suffered by animals in laboratories—and the paucity of any meaningful protections for the animals involved—it is simply astonishing that Rivera would compare the considerable rights of humans who volunteer themselves for clinical trials to the non-existent rights of animals who are unwilling participants in experiments where they are, for all intents and purposes, viewed as a means to an end and with little to no regard to their status as sentient beings capable of physical and psychological suffering.

      • Ms. Sandler’s post articulates many of the arguments made by animals rightists. And she is entitled to them. To be crystal clear, I do believe animal research can be performed humanely and justified ethically. It also is responsible for important advances in human and animal health. That said, I’m afraid the main thrust of my post was lost on Ms. Sandler. The piece was a thought experiment about the ways in which we do not grant certain protections for human research subjects. By comparing human research to animal experimentation, I am asking readers to consider whether the minimum protections given to animal subjects, such as treatment of reserach-related injuries, ought to be extended to human research participants.

        • Suzanne Rivera’s implicit contention that Ms. Sandler’s comments are opinions does not jibe with the detailed facts laid out by Sandler on the severely impoverished legal mechanisms that govern the treatment of animals used in experiments. While one would presume that a blog posted on Harvard’s “Bill of Health” contrasting legal protections granted to animals used in experimentation to those granted to human participants in research would actually focus on the substance of any such protections, Rivera seems more interested in misrepresenting regulations in favor of promoting a pro-animal experimentation agenda. When confronted with facts about the extent to which regulations do not protect animals, Rivera fails to respond to the facts, choosing instead to dismiss the arguments as those “made by animal rightists.” It is especially astounding that Rivera chose to exclude from her discussion the extensive protections that exist for human participants in research.

          • As I have stated elsewhere, I do believe animal research can be justified ethically and done humanely. In my earlier post, I made a distinction between animal rightists and animal welfarists. I place myself squarely in the latter camp. The purpose of my original post was not to describe the regs for human research and animal experimentation exhaustively but merely to raise questions I find interesting. I am under no obligation to defend animal research writ large, but can say with a clean conscience that, having observed firsthand the living conditions and veterinary treatment provided at numerous reputable research institutions, I cannot agree with Ms. Anello’s assertions that the mechanisms to protect animal welfare are impoverished.

    3. It is a fact that more than 100 million animals are consumed in U.S. laboratories each year, where they are deliberately inflicted with painful, debilitating diseases or are force-fed compounds that will sicken them. When the animals are no longer of any use to the experimenters, they are killed. Does Rivera seriously believe that a human research volunteer would rush to sign up for any aspect of this reality?

      Moreover, Rivera is incorrect in asserting that treatment of “research-related injuries” is a minimum protection granted to animals used in experimentation. On the contrary, the animals are injured as part of the “research.” And while veterinary care for sick and injured animals is recommended by regulations associated with the Animal Welfare Act, such care can be withheld if it is considered to interfere with the scientific objectives of the experiment—and it often is. As Ms. Sandler has noted, more than 99 percent of animals used in experimentation in the U.S. are exempted from the Animal Welfare Act and are not extended even the flimsy, threadbare “protections” granted to regulated species.

      • Dr. Chandna fails to recognize that human research participants also can receive dangerous compounds and undergo surgical and other invasive procedures as part of approved research studies. I don’t think the fact that they consent willingly diminishes the heroic nature of their participation.
        With regard to animal research, I must object to the suggestion that most animal subjects receive no protections. It’s true that the majority of research animals in the U.S. are rodents. And, although many Americans would kill a mouse or rat found in a family kitchen, reputable universities and academic medical centers observe all the animal care requirements of the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals, and the Government Principles that are the foundation for humane care and use of laboratory animals in this country. These principles, adopted in 1985 by the Office of Science and Technology Policy, include:
        I. The transportation, care, and use of animals should be in accordance with the Animal Welfare Act (7 U.S.C. 2131 et. seq.) and other applicable Federal laws, guidelines, and policies.*

        II. Procedures involving animals should be designed and performed with due consideration of their relevance to human or animal health, the advancement of knowledge, or the good of society.

        III. The animals selected for a procedure should be of an appropriate species and quality and the minimum number required to obtain valid results. Methods such as mathematical models, computer simulation, and in vitro biological systems should be considered.

        IV. Proper use of animals, including the avoidance or minimization of discomfort, distress, and pain when consistent with sound scientific practices, is imperative. Unless the contrary is established, investigators should consider that procedures that cause pain or distress in human beings may cause pain or distress in other animals.

        V. Procedures with animals that may cause more than momentary or slight pain or distress should be performed with appropriate sedation, analgesia, or anesthesia. Surgical or other painful procedures should not be performed on unanesthetized animals paralyzed by chemical agents.

        VI. Animals that would otherwise suffer severe or chronic pain or distress that cannot be relieved should be painlessly killed at the end of the procedure or, if appropriate, during the procedure.

        VII. The living conditions of animals should be appropriate for their species and contribute to their health and comfort. Normally, the housing, feeding, and care of all animals used for biomedical purposes must be directed by a veterinarian or other scientist trained and experienced in the proper care, handling, and use of the species being maintained or studied. In any case, veterinary care shall be provided as indicated.

        VIII. Investigators and other personnel shall be appropriately qualified and experienced for conducting procedures on living animals. Adequate arrangements shall be made for their in-service training, including the proper and humane care and use of laboratory animals.

        IX. Where exceptions are required in relation to the provisions of these Principles, the decisions should not rest with the investigators directly concerned but should be made, with due regard to Principle II, by an appropriate review group such as an institutional animal care and use committee. Such exceptions should not be made solely for the purposes of teaching or demonstration.

        *For guidance throughout these Principles, the reader is referred to the Guide for the Care and Use of Laboratory Animals prepared by the Institute for Laboratory Animal Research, National Academy of Sciences.

        • Thank you for your response, Dr. Rivera. Of course, reciting the the U.S. Government Principles for the Utilization and Care of Vertebrate Animals Used in Testing, Research, and Training does not contradict the veracity of my comments or the comments that others have made in response to your piece, highlighting the extent to which animals suffer in laboratories. It is particularly disturbing that in spite of the existence of Principles IV and V–which advise minimization of pain, discomfort, and distress to animals–it is commonplace for experimenters to withhold analgesia from mice and rats who are used in painful procedures.

    4. Ms. Rivera states ” As anyone in the field of animal science can tell you, there is a longer and more intense history of regulation in animal labs than ever has been applied to research conducted in human hospitals, clinics, or academic medical centers. One reason for this difference is that humans can consent to participate but animals can’t.” Although a human “can” consent (i.e., is physically capable of consenting) to an experiment where, for example, the human would have his or her spine severed in order to test a procedure for “curing” the resulting paralysis, a human, at least in the U.S., does not have the legal authority to consent to such a procedure, either upon him or herself or upon anyone else. The U.S. Constitution (a body of law with its own “long and intense history”) recognizes and guarantees our “god-given” right to bodily integrity and personal privacy. Non-human animals have no rights under the law. The Animal Welfare Act serves to mediate somewhat our capacity for rationalized cruelty, but Ms. Rivera’s fallacious attempt to equate the AWA’s protections to the laws protecting human rights is something I would expect to find on the website of the National Association for Biological Research not Harvard Law School’s.

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