To paraphrase 18th-century statesman Edmund Burke, all that is needed for the triumph of a misguided cause is that good people do nothing. “One such cause now seeks to end biomedical research because of the theory that animals have rights ruling out their use in research. Scientists need to respond forcefully to animal rights advocates, whose arguments are confusing the public and thereby threatening advances in heath knowledge and care. Leaders of the animal rights movement target biomedical research because it depends on public funding, and few people understand the process of health care research. Hearing allegations of cruelty to animals in research settings, many are perplexed that anyone would deliberately harm an animal.
For example, a grandmotherly woman staffing an animal rights booth at a recent street fair was distributing a brochure that encouraged readers not to use anything that opposed immunizations; she wanted to know if vaccines come from animal research. When assured that they do, she replied, “Then I would have to say yes.” Asked what will happen when epidemics return, she said, “Don’t worry, scientists will find some way of using computers.” Such well-meaning people just don’s understand.
Scientists must communicate their message to the public in a compassionate, understandable way in human terms, not in the language of molecular biology. We need to make clear the connection between animal research and a grandmother’s hip replacement, a father’s bypass operation, a baby’s vaccinations, and even a pet’s shots. To those who are unaware that animal research was needed to produce these treatments, as well as new treatments and vaccines, animal research seems wasteful at best and cruel at worst.
Much can be done. Scientists could “adopt” middle school classes and present their own research. They should be quick to respond to letters to the editor, lest animal rights misinformation go unchallenged and acquire a deceptive appearance of truth. Research institutions could be opened to tours; to show that laboratory animals receive humane care. Finally, because the ultimate stakeholders are patients, the health research community should actively recruit to its cause not only well-known personalities such as Stephen Cooper, who has made courageous statements about the value of animal research, but all who receive medical treatment. If good people do nothing there is a real possibility that an uninformed citizenry will extinguish the precious embers of medical progress.