From the president’s desk . . . March 1998

From the president’s desk . . . March 1998

Dialogue or diatribes? Is it enough to mean well?

By: Staff  Date: 03/7/1998 Category: | From the Offices of NAIA |

The writer of an article in the newsletter of another society to which I belong, the Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics, urged full discussion of the animal-rights movement and avoiding sloganeering when addressing the public. Dr. Ione Smith, a veterinarian from the Department of Comparative Medicine at the University of Tennessee, suggested we were demonizing the “other side” too much. I certainly agree that attempting to understand what animal rights means to different people and what motivates their statements and actions are musts. But also required is a clear-headed analysis of what provides the momentum to the movement and, in particular, an accurate portrayal of what the leaders seem to believe.

It is not, of course, the well-meaning souls who love animals and contribute vast sums to animal-rights organizations in toto that are driving the movement: They merely provide the fuel. Rather, the few leaders and the relatively few fanatics they have inspired are the ones who seriously harm human society while contributing little of lasting value to animal welfare. The rest of us (including the many with only a vague idea of what animal rights mean) just want to do our best for animals and people. Ultimately, though, we have to make a choice when it comes to using animals in biomedical research. And that is the essential point to make when speaking to the public.

I was surprised to read how benignly Dr. Smith treated two of those leaders, Ingrid Newkirk and Peter Singer. A rather too positive spin was put on what they have put forth while we were being asked to try to understand them. In the spirit of giving their viewpoints fair coverage as Dr. Smith requested, I would like to provide a more extensive review of their thinking here.

Ingrid Newkirk's now immortal statement, “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy,” was softened by quoting other subsequently added phrases: “When it comes to feelings etc.” and “When it comes to having a central nervous system, and the ability to feel pain, hunger and thirst etc.” Actually, it was originally coupled with this: “They're all mammals” in an interview with Washingtonian writer Katie McCabe in 1986. And it was preceded by “Animal liberationists do not separate out the human animal.” Attempts to put a more humane spin on Newkirk's colorful statement came from other directions, and were not included in the original quote. Dr. Smith should have stressed this.

If one doubts Newkirk's misanthropy, read a few others that no one has tried to sweeten as far as I know. Students should hear them and then be asked whether they want to follow such a leader. Asked if animal research were to lead to a cure for AIDS, Newkirk replied: “We'd be against it.” (Vogue, 1989) And another: “Humans have grown like a cancer. We're the biggest blight on the face of the planet.” (Reader's Digest, 1990). Also, “I am not a morose person but I would rather not be here. I don't have any reverence for life, only for the entities themselves. I would rather see a blank space where I am.” (Washington Post, 1983). And a most disturbing juxtaposition: “Six million Jews died in concentration camps, but six billion broiler chickens will die this year in slaughterhouses.” (The Washingtonian, 1990).

Her apparent ignorance of science should also be a part of any discussion. On NBCs Today on Sunday about five years ago, I heard this remarkable claim by her (stated here as accurately as I can remember): “It's only the Joe Six-pack scientists who use animals these days. The Einsteins use tissue cultures and computers.” Nobel Laureate Joseph Murray, whose work with dogs provided us with the marvel of kidney transplantation, laughed heartily when I suggested the category of scientists in which he seemed to fit.

Dr. Smith also cautioned us not to over simplify Singer's plea to give equal consideration to animals when deciding how to treat them in comparison with people. He does not really mean that animals should be treated exactly like humans we were told. Lets now take a look at just what “equal consideration for different beings” means to Singer (Animal Liberation, 1990) in practical terms. Should we deny ourselves the ability to survive through using animals to solve medical problems?

Singer says we can: “If a single experiment could cure a major disease, that experiment would be justifiable.” However, he adds: “Since a speciesest bias, like a racist bias, is unjustifiable, an experiment cannot be justifiable unless the experiment is so important that the use of a retarded human being would also be justifiable.” He adds: “I do not believe it could never be justifiable to experiment on a retarded human. If it were really possible to save many lives by an experiment that would take just one life, and there were no other way those lives could be saved; it might be right to do the experiment.”

A number of readers will take umbrage at these sentiments (to put it mildly), but Singer is really not supporting — at least I do not think he is — the idea of experimenting on retarded humans. He is setting the reader up to accept the statement that “not one tenth of one percent of the experiments now being performed on animals would fall into this category.” Of course not, one would have to be mightily ignorant of the process of science to think so — or to use this tactic to condemn the use of animals in research. For example, commonplace achievements such as open-heart surgery have depended on a host of unrelated “little” experiments, none of which would have cured a single illness. It would be next to impossible — I will even say impossible — for scientists to save many lives by an experiment that would take just one [animal] life.

To support his philosophy (and his cause) Singer trivializes a number of research projects in one chapter, “Tools for Research,” that is full of errors and half-truths (Russell and Nicoll, Proc.Soc.Exp.Biol. & Med., 1996, 211: 109-154). By so doing, he makes certain that maximizing good comes out in favor of animals: Enough good cannot come from trivial experiments to outweigh the suffering of animals.

One might argue that Singer lacks training in science and thus misrepresents science out of ignorance. There may be some — but only some — truth to this, for he clearly has no understanding of what makes a grant application stand out sufficiently to attract monetary support.

He assumes: “A proposal for a new experiment with animals is something that the administrators of research funds will be ready to support, if they have in the past supported other experiments on animals. New non-animal-using methods will seem less familiar and will be less likely to receive support.”

In fact, it is the quality of the applicant's ideas and how well they are presented, how the data will be analyzed and interpreted and that the most appropriate approach (animal or non-animal) has been chosen that win the day. And it is scientists, not administrators, who rank proposals for funding or not. That scientists serving on review boards, who are trained to look for the clearest findings using the most refined methods available, would reject new approaches out of hand is just a silly idea.

I think it is telling that after questioning the judgment and good sense of the research establishment Singer does not hesitate to fall back on its authority to support one of his arguments. Listen as he responds to the hypothetical suggestion that we would have to extend our consideration to plants to avoid being speciesists because they might suffer pain as well, thereby condemning ourselves to starvation.

“Although a recent popular book, The Secret Life of Plants, claimed that plants have all sorts of remarkable abilities, including the ability to read people's minds, the most striking experiments cited in the book were not carried out at serious research institutions, and more recent attempts by researchers in major universities to repeat the experiments have failed to obtain any positive results.”

I happen to agree with Singer here, merely noting a convenient inconsistency in his views on the good judgment of scientists.

Although many (both adherents and opponents of the animal-rights movement) have assumed that Singer views humans and animals as moral equals, this is not so (although the practical effect of adhering to his philosophy would create that effect). Singer states: “The preference in normal cases, for saving a human life over the life of an animal when a choice has to be made is a preference based on the characteristics that normal humans have, and not on the mere fact that they are members of our own species who lack the characteristics of normal humans. We can no longer say that their lives are always to be preferred to those of other animals.”

He is comparing normal, adult animals here to human infants and sub-normal people, neglecting the damage of such an attitude to the workings of human society.

After asking students to consider the thinking behind a movement that continues to work against medical progress — an excellent research program at Boys Town on the problem of deafness was shut down a couple of months after the plenary session thanks to the movement — I find them taken aback by its philosophical underpinnings. Full disclosure, not sloganeering, is, indeed, the right tactic. And, I might add, one can reveal such thinking quietly and respectfully. The effect is no less devastating.

Adrian R. Morrison, DVM PhD
President, NAIA

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