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The Politics of Compassion


By Michael Hasselmo

WHILE DOING research surgery on a rat recently, I had the unsettling experience of seeing the rat begin to move its rear leg. This reaction is common to animals under anaesthetic: it results from reflexes at the level of the spinal cord rather than conscious awareness of pain. I knew I had used the proper dose of anaesthetic, but I was disturbed nonetheless. I couldn't help imagining what it would be like to experience such surgery without anaesthesia.

I can now appreciate the motivations of the 4000 people who gathered for the Molibization for Animals demonstration last Sunday at the Park Plaza hotel in Boston. Though many demanded the abolition of the type of research I have been doing. I can see how empathy for the pain suffered by other species would lead people to make such demands. Still, many of their demands were extreme and I would not want to see them carried out.

In a sense, it is the strength of the protestors' empathy that makes their cause questionable. In their passion, they forget the enormous contributions to man's scientific progress, particularly in medicine, that animal research has made. The pamphlets put out by the Mobilization for Animals organization rely on anecdotes of horrifying animal tortures and pictures of the suffering victims. They ignore the fact that most research involves no pain and that all animal research has some scientific justification--though it may not be immediately clear to laymen.

The fact that the protestors have begun protesting so vocally is partly the fault of the research scientists. Animal researchers are not ex-concentration camp guards. Many have pets of their own, and most study animals because they enjoy being around animals. Their chief error is one of public relations: they tend to avoid contact with animal protection groups and the media.

Thus, it is the protestors whose views dominate public attention. Researchers fear that if the general public cannot understand their research, it will reject its validity. But their utter failure to explain the importance of research has bred a suspicious attitude among those people who might otherwise be more receptive to researchers concerns. As the president of the Humane Society said at last Sunday's protest. "We are not against science; rather, we are against a science that believes it is accountable to no one save itself."

To its credit, the Mobilization for Animals demonstration took a largely moderate stance. Most speakers acknowledged that some experimentation must continue and that alternative forms of research take time to institute--they showed a clear willingness to compromise constructively with the scientific research establishment. The demonstration is best viewed as the start of a constructive dialogue between animal protection groups and animal researchers. Their aims aren't all that different; they simply haven't learned to trust each other yet.

The Harvard Committee for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has adopted a properly moderate stance. Co-president Allegra Klein acknowledges that the best tactics for protecting animal rights aren't scare tactics. "If we took a radical stance we would have been rejected immediately," she says. So far the group has sent delegates to meetings of a standing committee on the use of animals in research here at the College, and it is waiting for approval to attend meetings of a committee on animals at the Medical School.

CONCERN FOR the well-being of animals cannot be left to individual researchers, for while most professors show great concern for the suffering of animals, other researchers lose perspective on what they are doing. Some unnecessary and downright cruel research does take place. The Draize test, which involved the testing of cosmetic substances on the corneas of rabbits, was replaced by more reasonable tests only after protection groups began to protest.

With the present shortage of government research funds, much unsound or unproductive research will inevitably be weeded out by peer review groups. Yet the protests will not cease until scientists have learned to deal openly and directly with animal protection groups. Certainly some extremist protestors will continue to ignore the facts that some repetition of experiments on animals must be done to maintain scientific integrity, and that much research simply cannot be replaced by working with computer models. But most animal care protestors will find that their feelings of empathy exist in researchers as well, and will be able to work with scientists toward a regulatory system which satisfies both groups.

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