It's a Jungle in Here

A look into the world of animal research at UW and beyond. Why the debate remains so heated.

(page 2 of 3)

Another complicating—and oft overlooked—reason why researchers clam up, Sandgren says, is that it is nearly impossible not to quote someone out of context. Science was not built for sound bytes and glossy magazine articles. Scientists begin with a hypothesis and systematically test their way through it, learning as much from what they don’t find as from what they do find. A single study can last decades, and attempts by outsiders to summarize findings are easily bungled. Many times, when animal rights activists and journalists alike attempt it, the results are simplistic and misleading.

David Abbott is one of the many researchers who didn’t want to talk to us for this article. But he did, and he agrees his colleagues are fed up with being attacked, misrepresented, labeled as monsters. They didn’t go into the sciences to be public speakers or debaters. They never wanted to become public relations experts, to learn to speak in slick, ready-to-print speech. They didn’t expect to be vilified for taking tax dollars and doing what the public mandated they do. They had questions, and they wanted to methodically dig up the answers they hoped would further the human cause.

Best known for his work on a serious illness called polycystic ovary syndrome, Abbott is one of Rick Marolt’s documented examples, the one whose work has included daily injections of testosterone to the fetuses of pregnant monkeys. His office is stereotypically closet-sized and cluttered, though his window is generously proportioned. The sun shines brightly upon a photo atop his computer framing two smiling teenaged boys, and his voice betrays a nervous flutter as he speaks. There is a lot at stake here.

“We’re not the most come-hither people because you have to take that deep breath, as I am talking to you, and go, ‘OK, I’m gonna do this,’” Abbott says. “Because it needs to be done.”

As Abbott begins to detail his work, its origins and its implications, the tremble in his voice evaporates. He is animated and proud, excited about the pioneering research he and his collaborators have accomplished. His work was just included in a 2008 textbook on PCOS, the implications of his research specifically lauded in the foreword.

Nobody knows where PCOS comes from, but its effects are debilitating: diabetes, obesity, acne, excessive hair growth, depression, sleep apnea, risk of endometrial cancer. The so-called “old world primates”—in this case those from Asia—are ideal models for women’s health issues because their reproductive endocrinology and physiology are very similar to those of human females. Monkeys, however, do not naturally develop PCOS as far as anyone can tell, so Abbott’s work replicates many of the symptoms, works the problem backward. He and his colleagues agree that it is groundbreaking, important work with lifesaving potential for human beings, and it is happening because of the UW monkeys. Antivivisectionists criticize him for studying not PCOS but its replicated symptoms.

“We take a known insult, and we mimic so much of what PCOS is by a controlled testosterone access just maybe fifteen to forty days during gestation, that’s it, nothing else,” says Abbott. “Now you look at the adult and you see ovarian androgen access. You see lack of cycles. You see ovaries that have too many follicles in them. You see insulin resistance. Abdominal obesity rather than overall obesity. You see impaired pancreas ability to cope with glucose. And you go, well, wait a minute, that’s all come from this one insult. That’s so close. It’s not perfect, but that is so close.”

When you home in on the specifics of Abbott’s work, things like injections into monkeys in utero, you might feel unsettled—but that doesn’t mean you understand it, or that it’s wrong. Like most researchers, Abbott broaches the argument from a utilitarian perspective. Does the good outweigh the bad?

“Yes, it’s invasive … but we are trying to find answers that there’s no other way to do this,” says Abbott. “Yes, it does take its toll. Do we do this lightly? No way. Do we limit the numbers we do it to, and the times we do it? You bet. We need to find an answer. Because if we can find an answer that can save women from the risks of diabetes and therefore the shorter lifespan, obesity, cancers, yes we will. Because for us, the cost is worth it.”

When Abbott starts to talk about his own personal beliefs, however, the lines begin to blur into some interesting shades of gray. He is just one person, and he is human after all, and he has traveled his own journey to arrive at a place that allows him to conduct invasive experiments on an animal he deeply respects.

“These are highly intelligent animals, but would I do this with chimpanzees? No. Because now for me, that’s crossing the line,” he says. “I think it’s all personal. I think some people would probably cross the line at amoeba, and for others there may be no line at all.”

So how do you know where to draw your own line? Would you kill a thousand monkeys if you knew it would save your child? Proponents of research say opponents wouldn’t be so smug if they or their children were suffering. They criticize activists for speaking against animal testing by day, then going home to plague-free homes to pop ibuprofen or antibiotics by night. But for opponents of research, the question is condescending, a sweeping generalization that misses the mark entirely.

For many antivivisectionists, it’s a question not of utilitarianism, but of ethics. There is no good or bad to be weighed when something is, plain and simple, wrong.

It all started in the fall of 2005, when her right foot kept turning inward. Over the next year Helene Dwyer suffered a steady loss of motor functions and a misdiagnosis before the verdict was finalized in September 2006: ALS, known more commonly as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

It’s a horrifying way to die, and shockingly quick in progression. For most patients, the mind remains crystalline intact, observing helplessly from the inside as the body systematically shuts down. Often, the last thing to fail is lung function, so Dwyer anticipates that sometime in the very near future, she will suffocate. She does not know if she will live long enough to read these words, but she wants to use what little time she’s got to make as big a difference as she can. She wants to speak her truth.

Dwyer has been an animal rights proponent for two decades now, a well-known and widely respected figurehead. She is fundamentally opposed to medical research on animals, believing instead that greater (and more ethical) gains can come from epidemiology, the study of the human population. She plans to donate her brain to science when she dies. And yes, she’s been asked many times if she would still oppose the research if she knew it would save her life. If it could un-gnarl her hands, if it could lift her from her wheelchair of her own accord.

“It’s like, if I knew they could cure me by experimenting on my neighbor and I could get away with it. I’d be tempted, wouldn’t I? But it’s not thinkable. And the reason we make laws for ourselves when we’re not in that situation is so that we can keep ourselves from doing the unthinkable under duress of emotion.”

Sixty-seven-year-old Dwyer is intimately familiar with the laws we make for ourselves, and has been arguing them since long before she knew her own convictions would be personally tested. She holds a Ph.D. in philosophy and spent twenty-four years teaching ethics at a UW college campus thirty miles north of Madison. Over the years she regularly posed the question: Where do you draw the line on the issue of animal rights? Like most educators, she has mastered the art of breaking down complex issues into bite-sized pieces. Analogies are often the easiest to swallow.

“I think it’s like slavery,” Dwyer says. “It was around for so long that people just ignored it. It was thinkable.”

But that’s different, an engaging student might retort. Monkeys aren’t people.

“Well, you’re not a man, you’re a woman. What’s the difference? What is the difference in the way that you’re dividing the groups? Is it on the basis of the way they look? On the basis of the way they act? On their capabilities? It can’t be that, because we wouldn’t do this testing on a disabled child.”

The truth is, we have done this testing on disabled children. The medical establishment, for all of its wondrous advances, has crossed the moral line in the past numerous times. At the Tuskegee Institute from 1932 to 1972, four hundred impoverished black men with syphilis were lied to about their conditions and treatment was withheld, solely so doctors could autopsy their bodies to learn the disease’s inner workings. From the 1950s through the ’70s, developmentally disabled children at New York’s Willowbrook School were infected with hepatitis in the search for its vaccine. From 1845 to 1849, J. Marion Sims, the pioneer of gynecology, practiced surgical techniques on slave women without anesthesia. Prisoners, homosexuals and others on society’s fringes throughout history have suffered greatly in the name of medical advancement.

This is why, for Dwyer and others like her, it’s not unthinkable that what those in power deem OK today might become morally unacceptable tomorrow. That the tide they’re swimming so hard against might finally turn.

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