Panel Questions Justification of Undergraduate Animal Testing

Rosemary Boeglin, News Editor

Oberlin Animals Rights group held a panel discussion Tuesday to discuss the use of live animals in undergraduate courses on campus. The moderated discussion utilized faculty — including chair and associate professor of Philosophy Tim Hall, Chair of the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee and Associate Dean of Arts and Sciences Joyce Babyak, Professor of Biology Keith Tarvin and Professor of Neuroscience Patrick Simen — to provide varied perspectives on the costs and benefits associated with animal testing; ultimately the conversation centered on the use of animals as a pedagogical tool in an undergraduate institution where the experimentation does not directly benefit new scientific research.

College sophomore Evan Cameron, treasurer of OAR, said the panel was precipitated by radical animal rights activist Peter Young’s visit to Oberlin, and that its primary purpose was to disseminate information and increase awareness.

“It seemed to me as if a lot of people were unclear on how animal testing works in teaching laboratories, professors’ research and student research, and could benefit from hearing straight from the science faculty involved in this,” Cameron said.

Hall said that Oberlin’s community fails to engage in discussions related to the rights of animals despite its prioritization of other ethical issues.

“It’s a shame that at a school that promotes conscientious reflection on so many topics the interests of animals are not taken more seriously,” Hall said.

Animal testing is one of the most controversial topics among animal rights groups, according to Cameron. A 2009 Pew Research study reported that 43 percent of Americans polled were opposed to the use of animals in scientific research, while other studies suggest that the remaining 57 percent justify the use of animals in testing because they believe it necessary for medical progress.

Hall, who said at the panel that he was not an “abolitionist” concerning all forms of animal testing, and Cameron both said that animal testing might be justifiable if directly used to benefit some forms of research.

“My personal position on animal testing is that for personal purposes such as the testing done for cosmetics and hygiene products, I am completely against it,” Cameron said. “However, when research is conducted for biomedical purposes, the animals are treated well under federal and institutional standards, and there are no other possible options in terms of scientific models to pursue for a particular experiment, then I believe the use of animals could possibly be justified.”

This is not the case at Oberlin. Simen explained that though the experiments conducted by undergraduates here does not directly benefit biomedical research, he believes that experiential learning and acquiring knowledge about the brain justifies the use of animals.

“My primary concern is not biomedical research. I want to know how the brain works. If that helps someone, that’s a great side-benefit… To me the value is in knowledge,” Simen said.

Furthermore, Simen said that though the experiments conducted at Oberlin do not have a direct impact on current research, the skills acquired through working with live animals at the undergraduate level benefit many students who go on to graduate and post-graduate studies to do research that “does impact masses of humanity.”

Hall argued at the panel that this justification ignores the fact that many researchers and doctors do not experiment on bodies until their post-graduate studies.

“I think Professor Hall made the comment at the panel that it is common in the United Kingdom for surgeons to have gone through all of their undergraduate and medical studies without utilizing animal testing, and then only at the post-graduate level do they finally begin to practice on live humans. And many medical schools in the United States no longer have animal models, either,” Cameron said.

Additionally, Hall said that though the use of human bodies would certainly provide insight for pre-med students, this is nevertheless a policy that the school would not support.

“Just as no college would consider including surgical procedures on human beings as part of undergraduate courses simply as preparation for medical school, Oberlin should insist that causing injury and death to animals is not an acceptable part of undergraduate education,” Hall said.

Oberlin formulates its animal testing policies on IACUC protocol, which specify appropriate uses of animals, their care, euthanasia methods and other pertinent procedures. Babyak chairs this committee as part of her position as associate dean of studies. Cameron said that he believes that the proper procedures for animal care are followed and that additional care outside that which the guidelines require is often given.

“I think that the IACUC at Oberlin follows standards that are above and beyond what similar institutions choose or are required to follow, and this helps to demonstrate Oberlin’s commitment to a respect for all forms of animal life,” Cameron said. “I have also heard several anecdotes and read things about several laboratory courses that have inspired me to believe that Oberlin is a leader in making the best compromise it can between performing animal testing for possible important research and respecting the animals that are used.”

Hall said he sees the use of animals in research here as an “irrational discounting of the animal in the first place,” and that the typical attitude which permits the use of animals in testing implies a diminution of the animal’s moral status.

“Granted, the injury and killing of animals in the classroom takes place against a background in which the most important interests of animals are regarded as less than trivially important,” Hall said. “That a feeling animal like a pig, a cow or a chicken should die simply because a person prefers the taste of its body to other foods is not regarded by any but a few people as a moral issue of any seriousness. The vast numbers of animals harmed and killed simply so that people can eat them dwarfs the use of animals in research.”