Forty years ago, the Belmont Report revolutionized the conduct of human research by articulating key ethical principles, specifically respect for autonomy, and obligations to beneficence and justice. As a result, human research now requires informed consent, a full assessment of the risks and benefits, and special protections for vulnerable individuals.
It’s time to extend the ethical framework set forth in the Belmont Report to animals. Animals are vulnerable, much like we are. But as it stands now, animals overwhelmingly bear the burdens of research, despite their inability to provide informed consent or to benefit from its outcomes – a decidedly unjust proposition.
While this might strike some as a radical idea, it is instructive to consider the painful record of unethical practices that preceded the Belmont Report. Public outrage about unjust research practices erupted in the 1960s and 1970s, especially after a report detailed the deceitful treatment of African American men in the Tuskegee Study. By 1974, Congress established the National Commission for the Protection of Human Subjects of Biomedical and Behavioral Research, which released the Belmont Report five years later.
At the time, Congress had already passed the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act of 1966. Its passage has in part been attributed to Pepper, a Dalmatian stolen from a Pennsylvania farm, sold into medical research and killed. Julia Lakavage – the nurse who rescued Pepper from a squalid kennel and kept her on their farm before Pepper was stolen, sold and killed for research – told a newspaper reporter, “Dogs are like family members … children that don’t grow up.” Pepper’s story garnered national attention, filling the pages of Sports Illustrated, where she was called a martyr for the cause to protect animals.
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