Perhaps no one has been more vilified for his feelings and actions towards animals than René Descartes. Many researchers attribute the 17th-century belief that animals were mere machines devoid of fear, pain, or pleasure to the French mathematician, philosopher and scientist. The feelings of the animals, even if they were present, were morally irrelevant to Descartes, who attempted to prove his point by subjecting dogs and rabbits to exquisite torture.
Today, in society and science, these Cartesian views are rarely tolerated. Rather, multiple disciplines within science and philosophy have evolved to better understand the minds and experiences of animals. New generations of learners have demanded that their programs include attention to animal suffering. Scientists have also become more concerned about how pain and distress experienced by animals in the laboratory can affect interpretations of data obtained through animal research.
In 1959, concerns about the implications of animal pain research led zoologist William Russell and microbiologist Rex Burch to propose the “3 Rs” framework, which emphasizes replacement susceptible animals with “less sensitive” animals or non-animal methods, reduction in the number of animals used in research protocols and refinement the pain and distress experienced by the animals during the search. Researchers, reviewers and watchdogs continue to build on this framework more than 60 years after its original publication in The principles of human experimental technique. National and international guidelines governing the use of animals in research have been written and continually updated to reflect 3R compliance. Yet the 3Rs framework allows for experiments parallel to those performed by Descartes, if the trait cruelty of research can be justified in the name of science.
Expectations for animals used in research have evolved differently from those for human research. Despite a painful history of “science first” strewn with injustices such as racism, sexism and ableism, human research has become more ethical. Public outrage at human research practices, including the 40-year United States Public Health Service Syphilis Study at Tuskegee and the 14-year Hepatitis Studies at Willowbrook State School of New York, led Congress to establish the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects in Biomedical and Behavioral Research in 1974. * In five years, the commission published the Belmont Report, which set out fundamental ethical principles to guide human research. Using a broad justice framework, the commission’s approach underscored the importance of avoiding actual and potential harm, especially in research involving people who could not give their consent or those who could be targeted by because of their vulnerabilities in society.
The Belmont Report revolutionized regulations related to human research, although its call for respect for autonomy and obligations to justice, beneficence and non-maleficence – the principle of ‘do no harm’ – remains ambitious in many ways . Yet few would dispute its importance as an ethical framework that places the fight against maleficence and justice at the forefront of decisions about the pursuit of human research projects.
It is high time to set up a similar suction frame for animals. The practice of research involving animals must contend with centuries of scientific discovery that lay bare the abilities and experiences of non-human beings.
Today, there is a large consensus among people who study the abilities of animals that many species are aware of, experience acute and chronic pain and discomfort, and experience emotional trauma in the form of disordered psychology. When animals in laboratories are held in captivity, subjected to painful experiences, separated from their families and peers, coerced into sexual activity, exposed to constant threats to their own lives and witnessing harm to others animals, their body and mind are significantly altered. In laboratories, these harms accumulate and multiply in environments where animals have no real opportunity to strengthen their resilience and experience the richness of life.
Extending the principles of the Belmont Report to animals would pave the way for a fair and anti-malefic framework for decisions about the use of animals in research. It would also help promote increased transparency, improved academic publication standards and greater investment in modern, human-centered, more reliable and more translatable research methods. It could also have the benefit of recruiting younger and more diverse learners who care deeply about justice to participate in scientific innovation. Four hundred years after Descartes, isn’t it time?
This is an opinion and analysis article; the opinions expressed by the author or authors are not necessarily those of American scientist.
* Editor’s Note (09/16/21): This sentence has been modified after publication to correct the reference to the duration of the Tuskegee study.