The elusive ethics of animal ethics committees

A rat used for cancer research in the United States. Janet Stephens

More than six million animals are used in experiments in Australia each year. Many endure pain and distress, and most are killed after their use.

The research community claims that our regulatory framework ensures animals are only used for scientific purposes when their use is essential and justified. We challenge this “clean image” and believe much animal experimentation today is unreasonable and continues the abuses of the past.

We also believe that the Australian public is being kept in the dark about the research use of animals. As in the cases of live exports and factory farming, public disclosure will be the key agent for change.

Animal advocacy groups argue unethical research that causes harm to animals and has insufficient benefits is still routinely approved in Australia. There are many examples – shaking lambs' heads until they die to test hypotheses about “shaken baby syndrome”, breast implants in pigs, feeding junk food to rats and brain surgery on marmosets.

That such studies have proceeded after ethics approval suggests to critics of current practice that something is seriously amiss.

Animal experimentation in Australia is governed by the National Health and Medical Research Council’s (NHMRC) Code of Practice for the Care and Use of Animals for Scientific Purposes and state laws. According to the NHMRC, the purpose of the Code is to “ensure the ethical and humane care and use of animals used for scientific purposes as defined in the Code."

This self-regulatory system is currently under review. Although compliance is strongly impressed on institutions and researchers, there are no penalties for not complying.

In many respects, the purpose of the Code is to legitimise the interests of the “industry”. The Code allows acts against animals which, if committed by an ordinary person outside a research institution, would be regarded as offences under the animal cruelty legislation.

Animal Ethics Committees

Under the Code, ethical review is conducted on every research proposal by an Animal Ethics Committee (AEC). These committees must have at least four members, with one having a commitment to animal welfare (the Category C member) and another who “should be viewed by the wider community as bringing a completely independent view to the AEC”, normally a layperson (the Category D member).

Approval decisions are made on the basis of consensus and any proposal must satisfy the committee that the requirements of replacement (not using animals where possible), reduction (reducing the number of animals used) and refinement (minimising impact) have been considered.

The contentious projects we mentioned above suggest that self-regulation of the animal research community is either too weak or not being properly complied with, or both. We’re puzzled that the AEC member with a commitment to animal welfare and the layperson assented to these experiments.

We suspect that in these cases the independent members were not independent or, if they were, perhaps they were restricted in expressing their point of view. Several critics (for example, here and here) have claimed these are common problems with the operation of AECs.

Independently of the experience of AEC members, the principles and overall approach of the Code itself show how difficult it can be to reject projects as unethical. Despite some seemingly strong provisions to protect animals, we believe the Code biases AECs toward approval.

Under the Code, animal lives have no intrinsic value. As long as their suffering can be minimised “where possible”, they can be used and then disposed of in scientific projects of “merit”. The Code uses a lot of words, such as “necessary”, “essential” and “justified”, but is short on criteria for how these critical terms should be interpreted.

In the crude harm-to-benefit calculation that the Code sees as constituting ethical assessment, benefit (mostly to humans) will nearly always outweigh harm to animals even before the particulars of a project are examined. Because if there’s little harm caused when pain and discomfort are minimised as much as possible (relative to a project’s objectives), and killing an animal after use is doing it no harm, then minor benefits, and even minor potential benefits, will be sufficient to justify using animals.

Lack of disclosure and transparency

Like many before us, we discovered that it’s very difficult to find publicly available documents detailing the deliberations and decisions of AECs. This is despite the fact that the NHMRC and universities (big users of research animals and the focus of this article) are funded by taxpayers.

We could easily retrieve the AEC terms of reference for most institutions, as well as meeting dates and, in some cases, even the names of AEC members. But we found very few instances where an associated animal welfare organisation of a Category C member was named.

We couldn’t find the applications for the contentious studies listed above, nor the records of the AECs that approved them. In fact, we couldn’t find the AEC applications records for any research project that uses animals – that information is just not in the public domain.

When we contacted the major universities, we either received no reply, were directed to irrelevant information on a website, or were told that these details were the subject of confidentiality agreements to protect intellectual property. But how can intellectual property be an issue after research is published, as in the cases we cite?

Surely the veil of secrecy that hangs over AECs is unreasonable. The public should know the details of ethical assessments of animal use projects and be assured that animal welfare and community points of view are adequately represented.

Animal experiments with dubious benefits coupled with the lack of transparency have led us to believe that research involving animals approved under the Code is not necessarily essential and justified. If our assessment is correct, we doubt that animal ethics processes are as rigorous as the research community often claims.

A vital and urgent first step to change this situation and start seeing a reduction in the number of the animals used for experimental purposes is greater transparency. In particular, universities need to allow greater public scrutiny of their Animal Ethics Committees.