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.
The Animal Welfare Act has been amended multiple times over the past half century. However it fails to adequately protect the millions of animals – including tens of thousands of dogs – that are still used and killed in laboratory experiments each year in the U.S.
Americans have a deep, but often ambivalent, relationship with animals. About half believe that medical testing on animals is morally unacceptable, according to a 2018 Pew Research Center Poll, and a growing number are turning to lifestyles that reflect greater consideration for animals.
These societal changes beg the question of how our institutions might better respond to monumental shifts in our understanding of and concern for animals. For example, could we envision a Belmont Report for animals that considers concepts like autonomy, justice and vulnerability? In a recent article in the journal Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, my colleagues and I explain how.
Despite their inability to provide informed consent, many animals are capable of making choices about their lives – potential decisions that are routinely discounted during the course of research, exposing them to physical and mental suffering. Animals used for research often suffer from such disorders as post-traumatic stress and depression.
If we were to take animals’ lives seriously, we would have to consider the consequences of forced breeding, separation from loved ones and a lifetime of confinement – not to mention the ways in which they are subjected to deadly diseases and invasive procedures, and killed.
I know that attempting to establish a Belmont Report for animals is likely to face significant opposition, particularly from corporate interests, animal researchers and academic institutions that profit from federal grants. But it is worth remembering that changes in human research protections did not appear as a result of internal criticism. Public outrage and pressure were needed to create many of the protections we enjoy today.
It is sometimes argued that scientific advances will come to a halt if we enhance research protections for animals. This perspective lacks imagination. Many doctors, scientists and policymakers already question the validity and reliability of applying knowledge gained from animal experiments to human ailments.
Just as restrictions in human research have prompted us to become more ethically and scientifically thoughtful, bringing more morally consistent practices to animal research promises to do the same.
Hope Ferdowsian is author of “Phoenix Zones: Where Strength Is Born and Resilience Lives,” and president of the Phoenix Zones Initiative.