A Legal Challenge to Animal Research
Animal rights law courses may threaten the use of animals in medical research.
Over half of US law schools now have animal law courses, including many in universities with medical and research programs that utilize animals protected by federal welfare laws. Courses that promote standards for humane animal care and welfare are unlikely to provoke conflict, but programs championing animal rights or “liberation” set up adversarial potential on campuses and pose a serious risk to the future of animal research. The use of the law instead of violence and threats, however, should be acknowledged as a forward step.
According to the course catalogues of 203 law schools listed on the website for the Law School Admissions Council (LSAC.org), 111 (55%) teach an animal law course (B). Of 121 student groups throughout US law schools with a focus on animal law and animal rights, 85 are at schools with an animal law class while 37 are at schools without such a class. Accordingly, animal law, through either coursework or student groups, is being addressed at 148 (73%) of US law schools.
Among the top 50 law schools in the country, 36 maintain at least one animal law course in their curriculum. Growth in animal law programs has been supported by contributions from “The Bob Barker Endowment Fund for the Study of Animal Rights Law,” providing $1 million gifts each to Harvard, Duke, Stanford, Columbia, and other universities.1
Considering the potential influence of these courses on research, the access that law schools have to the perspectives of scientists was measured, and defined by whether the home institution had a medical school or a Public Health Service Approved Animal Welfare Assurance. Eighty-three (41%) law schools have a connection to a medical school and 138 (68%) conduct animal research. Among the 111 schools teaching animal law, 44 (40%) have an institutional connection to a medical campus and 77 (69%) are housed in institutions that conduct animal research.
Under current US law, things are either property or persons. Legal rights for animals require the establishment of personhood; property cannot have rights. US welfare laws view animals as property, but emphasize our responsibility to care for them humanely. The effort to ascribe “personhood” to animals is a central focus of animal rights supporters, since changing public perception of animals is one way to stop their use in food, clothing, entertainment, and research. In some jurisdictions, “pet owner” has been replaced by “animal guardian,” ascribing a different status for the animal. References to animal researchers as “vivisectors” who “exploit” “sentient beings” and practice “torture” and “cruelty” (applied generally to research), also impact the public. In a poll earlier this year (May 7–10),2 only 57% felt that animal research was morally acceptable, down from 62% in 2004.
The future may see an attempt to recognize Aristotle’s three categories: things, animals, and persons. Animals may not ultimately enjoy the rights of persons, but the law may become increasingly specific about our obligation to care for them. If, on the other hand, “personhood” for animals is achieved, this status is likely to be in conflict with animal research.
Failure to address developments in the education of law students is likely to have a long-ranging impact on the ability to develop new treatments needed for human and animal well-being.
P. Michael Conn is Director of Research Advocacy at Oregon Health and Sciences University and Oregon National Primate Research Center.