Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

Stanford Committee on Ethics, Animal Research at Stanford University

When the Stanford University Medical Center Committee on Ethics addressed the issue of animal research, one might have hoped that it would attempt to present a balanced position paper on the complex scientific and moral issues raised by animal experimentation. Instead, it produced a one-sided report which has been used extensively by apologists for animal research. The document fell short of its stated aim “ analyze some of the issues currently associated with the use of animals in biomedical research.”1 Rather, it endorsed uncritically the current status of animal research, and it failed to address major concerns of animal research critics.

The first section, entitled “Why Do We Conduct Research with Animal Subjects?” noted “Because nonanimal systems are generally less expensive and simpler to control and because they entail few if any ethical constraints, a scientist usually considers them first.”1 However, the issue of expense is of little concern to the scientist, because the cost of animals is written into the research grant. While it is sometimes more difficult to obtain the most expensive animals (e.g. primates), the cost of smaller animals such as rodents tends to be a low fraction of the total grant request, compared to overhead, equipment, and salaries.

Reference to “ethical constraints” on animals is interesting, given the widespread use of scientifically unsound and highly noxious uses of animals in “biomedical” science and testing. Despite the authors’ implied concern, there is little evidence that those who engage in animal research have ethical reservations about the use of experimental animals.

Finally, those who are trained in animal research methodologies are different people from those who are skilled in alternative approaches, such as tissue cultures and epidemiology. While an alternative may be less expensive and/or scientifically superior to a proposed animal research protocol, the animal researcher is much more likely to endorse his/her own approach. Frequently, there is a direct conflict between personal professional and economic goals and the interests of both science and animals.

The report defended animal research on the utilitarian grounds that “All past advances in the treatment of human and animal diseases have depended on contributions from both animal and nonanimal studies.” Because medical tradition dictates that experimental therapies must be “proven” effective in animal “models,” animals have been involved in virtually all past advances. However, several historical reviews have found that almost all the major breakthroughs in cancer chemotherapy2,3 immunology4 and anesthesia5 have resulted from clinical research, observation of patients, or human autopsies. Often the subsequent animal model verification process has delayed progress by failing to confirm the clinical findings. The Committee supported its interpretation of medical history by suggesting (without references) that animal models were critical in the discovery of insulin and the polio vaccine. In fact, human autopsies revealed that pancreatic islet cells made insulin, and biochemical techniques isolated the hormone.5,6 Second, while monkeys were used initially as a biological assay to test for human polio infection and later to test for the safety of vaccine batches, the monkey “model” of polio infection was not a valuable animal model of human polio. In fact, misleading conclusions based on the experimental model delayed the development of the vitally important in vitro culture, for which Enders, Robbins, and Weller won the Nobel Prize.7 Thus, many medical historians would disagree with the unsubstantiated claim that “These advances would probably not have occurred had animal models been unavailable to researchers.” The report encouraged further use of animal models, citing, for example, the observations that “Cancer kills humans and animals alike.” Beyond this superficial similarity, however, the animal models of cancer quickly lose relevance. Cancer reflects a failure of the immune system, and basic immunological differences between people and animals compromise animal models of cancer.2

The second section posed the question “What about the Moral Status of Animals?” The report cited three books which defended animal rights and five references that denied rights to animals. Interestingly, one of the five8 was by philosopher Michael Allen Fox, who renounced his opposition to animal rights9 over a year prior to the publication of the Stanford Committee on Ethics report in the New England Journal of Medicine. Fox wrote that his book: now an embarrassment to me ... I now look at these arrogant remarks with dismay. How was it possible for someone of reasonable intelligence and sensitivity to hold these views? There are a number of explanatory factors: personal advantage, social conditioning, and the way we are taught to do ethics are among them.9

The Committee chose not to evaluate the ethics of animal experimentation. Rather, it determined, “Our task is to discern a position that represents attitudes shared by most members of society toward the use of animals in research.”1 Surely a “Committee on Ethics” could offer more than the equivalent of a Harris Survey in an attempt to resolve this difficult issue. What would a poll of nineteenth century slave owners on the morality of slavery have shown? What would be the position of Americans if they were allowed to witness animal research, behind the well-guarded laboratory doors? The outraged public responses after the revelations at the Institute for Behavioral Research in Maryland and at the University of Pennsylvania head injury laboratory suggest that widespread acceptance of animal research reflects public ignorant of animal research practices, rather than public belief in the moral legitimacy of animal research. The report proposes:

There is a common-sense view that avoids the extremes of ascribing rights to animals or stripping them of all moral worth and yet allows them to be used in research under certain conditions. Such a position is based on the principle of humane treatment, which places an indirect obligation on humans to prevent the suffering of animals without imposing a direct duty to respect an animal’s rights, all things being equal ... the principle of humane treatment requires, at a minimum, the prohibition of unnecessary pain and suffering ... It is a powerful force governing our treatment of animals in research...1

Novic, the only dissenting member of the Committee on Ethics voiced many objections in his minority opinion. He wrote:

What ‘moral worth’ is being ascribed to animals here? ...what little meaning it (moral worth) does have seems to make this ‘common sense view’ suspiciously interchangeable with the ‘status quo view.”10

Novic continued that the “principle of humane treatment” is too vague to be meaningful. He objected:

It is simply unclear without further explanation what this principle is saying. What is an indirect obligation? How are the terms ‘humane’ and ‘suffering’ to be applied? These terms clearly have a subjective component What criterion of necessity is to be applied?10

The final section asked “What Mechanisms Ensure That Animals Are Treated Humanely?” The report maintained that “At least five separate kinds of regulation exist to protect research animals from mistreatment ensuring that research animals are used only when necessary and only under humane conditions.”1 Review by the independent accreditation organization, the American Association for Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care (AAALAC), is optional. AAALAC is funded by the research institutions themselves, and it has no enforcement mechanisms. Most institutions are not AAALAC accredited. The Federal guidelines of the Animal Welfare Act cover only about 10% of laboratory animals. The regulations deal with housing, veterinary care, and similar concerns, and they leave the choice of experimental protocols to individual experimenters. Furthermore, enforcement of the law is hampered by inadequate funding. While four inspections per year is considered desirable, in 1983, 51.7% of institutions in California and 48.7% in New York were not inspected at all.11 State and professional societies comprise two additional regulatory bodies, but both have done little more than establish poorly enforced guidelines for animal treatment. Stanford has a fifth regulatory mechanism, known as the Administrative Panel on Laboratory Animal Care. Of its 12 members, nine are affiliated with Stanford. Its three non-affiliated members are a scientist and two veterinarians. Novic noted:

A member’s having no ties to Stanford says nothing about the member’s ties to the research community ... Why are there no members of a Humane Society on this committee? Other local research institutions, such as UC Berkeley, UCSF, and Cal Sate Hayward have members of the animal welfare community on their animal use committees)10

The university guidelines, the report claimed, “...provides strong sanctions if transgressions are discovered.”1 However, by the report’s description, this committee appears to evaluate research projects only prior to the purchase of animals, and there was no mention of subsequent review of animal care. Furthermore, there was no mention of specific past and present sanctions to enforce the guidelines.

The Stanford University Committee on Ethics has produced a report that appears to be one-sided and politically motivated. Its evaluation of the past contribution of animal research and the future potential of animal experimentation gave sweeping credit to animal research, consistent with the dogma of the animal research community. The report did not even acknowledge that many historians and scientists disagree. In its discussion on animal rights, the report based its conclusions not on carefully reasoned argument but on a “position ... shared by most members of society.” It does not appear that the Stanford University Committee on Ethics took the challenging ethical issue of animal research seriously. Finally, the report claimed that mechanisms exist for effective enforcement of animal welfare concerns. However, it provided only a list of organizations and committees that have virtually no enforcement powers. The myriad of institutional, professional, state, and federal regulatory bodies appear to be little more than “window dressing.” By providing supposed protection for laboratory animals, they give the public a false impression that animal research is well regulated. Thus, the regulatory bodies may serve the interests of the animal researchers more than the interests of the animals.


1. Thomas JA, Hamm TE, Perkins PL, et al.: Animal research at Stanford University: principles, policies, and practices. New Engl J Med 1988;318:1630-1632.

2. Bross IDJ: Crimes of Official Science. Buffalo: Biomedical Metatechnology, 1987.

3. Reines B: Cancer Research on Animals: Impact and Alternatives. Chicago: National Anti-Vivisection Society, 1986.

4. Good RA: Runestones in immunology. J Immunol 1976;117:1413-1428.

5. Good RA: Keystones. J Clin Invest 1968;47:1466-1471.

6. Bliss M: The Discoveiy of Insulin. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1982.

7. Paul JR: Histoiy of Poliomyelitis. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1981.

8. Fox MA: The case for animal experimentation: an evolutionary and ethical perspective. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1986.

9. Fox MA: Animal experimentation: a philosopher’s changing views. Between the Species 1987;3:55-82.

10. Novic J: Research on nonhuman animals at Stanford University Medical Center: a minority report. San Francisco, 1986.

11. U.S. General Accounting Office: Report to the Chairman, Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development and Related Agencies Committee on Appropriations United States Senate (GAO/RCED-85-8). Washington, D.C.: General Accounting Office, 1985.