Ethics, Pay, Research And Animal Welfare

The AVMA conference, held in New Orleans, featured an exciting and masterful ethics session.

The ethics sessions at the American Veterinary Medical Assn. conference in New Orleans tackled some controversial issues. It was the most exciting day that I have spent at a veterinary meeting since driving a NASCAR vehicle at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Racing to Save Pets) and organizing the “think tank” wrap-up session at the University of California davis, Theilen Tribute Symposium.

Why were the ethics discussions so exciting? The speakers were asked by Society for Veterinary Medical Ethics President Dr. Gary Block to present information on “hot issues” near and dear to the profession.

The first speaker, Dr. Dennis McCurnin, described various incentive pay plans. He set the stage for Dr. Clayton MacKay to discuss and debate the ethics of using incentive pay to reward veterinarians for performance and productivity. Many viewpoints regarding money for medicine were aired during these two sessions.

Stem Cell Debate

The sparks started flying when Bernie Rollin, Ph.D., took the floor for two hours. He discussed the ethics involved in cloning and stem cell research. Rollin, a bioethicist at Colorado State University, helped attendees distinguish the difference between religious belief systems and secular government systems and how the two often get mixed and can collide with progressive thinking.

Rollin’s candid remarks are invaluable. He said that purists felt that science should operate without ethics, and that this idea went on for too long. He said that when ethics guide science, they provide people, animals and the environment a sane, humane and sustaining balance.

Rollin’s discussion led to numerous questions regarding cloning humans, harvesting pluripotent stem cells from cultured human embryos, and the ethics of the use and disposal of the cells.

He said that there is no arguable dispute with cloning and stem cell research in veterinary medicine. This is not the case in human medicine, although the majority of Americans support stem cell research. Rollin pointed out that a core minority is consistently opposed to embryonic stem cell research, and that some religious thought declares that human life, with an accompanying soul, starts at conception. These people believe that the cultured embryos are human beings, not just cellular material to be used and discarded.

Although researchers can make embryonic stem cells by merging unfertilized eggs with skin cells (thus without “conception” by fertilizing eggs with sperm), the religious core still opposes their use.

I asked Rollin about how society views the inevitable loss of the majority of embryos that are transferred to women at fertility clinics all over the world.

At these clinics millions of fertilized human embryos are stored in liquid nitrogen. The eggs are collected from the intended mother or a donor and then fertilized with sperm from the intended father or a donor. The embryos are cultivated with the intention for immediate transfer at the most opportune stage, or they are stored for use at a later date,which may be up to 20 years later. We know that the majority of transferred embryos do not survive.

What about these embryos? Why has society accepted this use and not the other? Is it political will? Is it belief or ethics? Will  U.S. research fall behind in the healing potential of stem cells?

One doctor asked why we were discussing human cloning and stem cell use instead of sticking to veterinary medicine. Rollin pointed out that the majority of society opposes cloning pets and people. But are there certain circumstances (such as death of an only child) when exceptions would be justified? These were the questions our group enthusiastically discussed during the sessions. You should have been there!

AVMA Decisions

Dr. Gail Golab, director of the AVMA’s recently revamped  Animal Welfare Committee, presented the process of policymaking in her talk titled, “How the AVMA Animal Welfare Division and Committee Identify and Come to Conclusions on Specific Items.”

Golab and AVMA members research multifaceted issues, both pro and con. Decisions are made by balancing scientific knowledge and professional judgment with consideration of ethical and societal values. Measures brought forward by Golab’s committee over the past two years have been accepted for presentation to the AVMA delegates.

This demonstrates a strong liaison and willingness to move issues forward. Golab and the AVMA members are taking leadership roles in drawing consensus despite the variety of stakeholders involved with each issue.

One veterinary student said he felt alienated from the AVMA because of its conservative positions on issues. Of course, questions were flying as to why the AVMA has been slow to respond to such welfare issues as the practice of starving chickens for two weeks (forced molting) to enhance egg laying.

Questions were asked about cramped housing for livestock. I asked about racing baby horses. But time constraints limited further discussion. Click here for more information.

Morals in Money

Dr. Patty Olson, chief executive officer and president of The Morris Animal Foundation, presented current ideas on acceptable and humane research in her talk, “New Face of Animal Research.” She pointed out that MAF will not award grant money for research that disagrees with its humane philosophy. Olson said that one university actually changed its end point regarding euthanasia in order to qualify for a MAF grant proposal.

There was also the issue of MAF grants being used for “overhead expenses” at the universities. Olson said that MAF is a donor-based organization.

Despite other granting organizations such as National Institutes of Health, which may allow 7 percent or more, MAF will not allow more than 4 percent of any grant to be allocated for overhead. Attendees were pleased to know that MAF is setting a trend and making inroads for the humane treatment of animals in research that will benefit other animals.

Dr. Katherine Knutson presented an informative talk titled, “When Law and Ethics Collide.” She gave examples of how  laws view animals as property and how this conflicts with society’s modern perception of the human-animal bond and the emotional value of pets in the family.

On one side, veterinarians do not want to be burdened with increased malpractice fees that would be necessary to defend against  lawsuits requesting huge sums of money as settlement for the emotional value of pet patients that die in their care.

On the other hand, our profession attests that the human-animal bond is special and that animals are worth spending money on, despite the rising cost of veterinary services. Naturally, this topic kindled elevated emotions and deep debate.


Andrew Rowan, Ph.D., gave an inspiring talk titled, “Animal Welfare, the Humane Society Veterinary Medical Assn., and Internal Conflicts in the Veterinarians’ Oath.” The HSVMA is a merger of from the Association of Veterinarians for Animal Rights and the Humane Society of the United States.

Rowan helped attendees understand the purpose of the new organization and why it was established. He said that the new HSVMA will provide a home for veterinarians who want to advocate for animal protection and welfare in a progressive manner.

The new organization will support programs that will involve 700 veterinary students in animal welfare projects all over the world. Rowan, who taught at Tufts Veterinary College for 20 years after working for the HSUS, is now back with the organization.

Rowan said that he has always had his feet firmly planted on both sides but that he puts a little more weight on one foot or the other, depending on which organization he is working for.

I asked Rowan to clear the air regarding the accusations that the HSUS and its CEO and president, Wayne Pacelle, have a hidden agenda to do away with all pet keeping. He said, “This is not true. The majority of our members own pets, and they are allowed to bring their pets to work.”

Dr. Martha Littlefield, president of the American Assn. of Human-Animal Bond Veterinarians and assistant state veterinarian for Louisiana, asked Rowan to comment on the increase in horse abandonment and abuse during transport to international facilities following the ban on horse slaughter for meat export in the U.S.

Rowan declined to acknowledge that the horse abuse problem resulted from the ban without verifiable statistics. 


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