The use of animals in research is a key area of RCR because it is controversial. While animal research has improved the health of animals and humans, animal rights groups have been vocal in their opposition to experimentation on animals.
Key ethical questions concerning animal research include the following:
- Can the potential benefits to human health and welfare justify procedure that may result in discomfort to animals?
- Do animals have rights similar to or different from those of humans, which should influence how we understand the ethics of research with animals?
- Are all animals equal? (For example, is experimenting with insects morally equivalent to experimenting with non-human primates?)
- Do researchers have obligations towards animals under their care and control that they do not have towards wild animals of the same species because of the relationship created by having the animals in their care?
Most people who accept animal research believe that researchers have responsibilities towards animal subjects. The most basic responsibility is that experiments must have scientific merit. In addition, research projects must incorporate the three “R’s” of animal research.
What Rules Apply?
In 1966, Congress passed the Animal Welfare Act (AWA) establishing legal standards for laboratory animal care and use and appointing the US Department of Agriculture as the agency responsible for implementing and enforcing the law. Their legal oversight applies to select animals used in research. Public Health Service’s (PHS) Policy on the Humane Care and Use of Laboratory Animals (2000) also applies to PHS funded research. The Office of Laboratory Animal Welfare (OLAW) implements PHS policies.
Federal rules for animal research programs are summarized in the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee Guidebook, issued most recently in 2002. The Guide is also followed by institutions engaged in animal research in the implementation of their animal care and use program. The program must include:
- Replacement-replacing animals with other experimental systems, such as tissue cultures or computer modeling, when possible and replacing “higher” animals with “lower” animals.
- Reduction-using the minimum number of animals for valid research results and not repeating one’s own or another’s experiments without compelling reasons.
- Refinement-designing research to minimize harms to animals including pain, suffering, disability, and death.
- An Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC)
- Procedures for self monitoring
- An adequate veterinary care program
- An occupational health and safety program
- A personnel training program
- An environment, housing, and management program for animals
- Appropriately maintained facilities for housing and support
The Guide also specify the authority of the IACUC in the oversight of the animal care program for that institution. IACUCs must review all projects involving animal to ensure they meet humane and scientific standards. They can approve, disapprove, or require changes for approval of projects. They can suspend or terminate approval of research that is not being conducted in accordance with the IACUC's decisions, conditions, and requirements, or that has been associated with unexpected serious harm to animal subjects. IACUCs also conduct semiannual reviews of the institution’s program. There must be an organized training program for all that conduct animal research.