Firebombing Medical Research

By P. Michael Conn and James V. Parker
Monday, December 8, 2008

Terrorists have struck again. In the predawn hours one morning last month, they used an incendiary device to destroy two cars. You may not have heard about this, even though it followed a series of firebombings of homes and other vehicles. The attack didn't take place in Mumbai or Baghdad but in Los Angeles. Yet the news couldn't break through the reports on the holiday season and our economic woes.

The intended target of this violence, a researcher at the University of California at Los Angeles, was a scientist who uses animals in his work. But the terrorists, reportedly from an organization known as the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), had bad aim. The burned cars belonged to people with no relationship to UCLA or even to animal research.

Black comedy? No, because lives hang in the balance, and not just those of the intended targets, their families and anyone who happens to reside nearby. Because of such terrorism, many medical researchers are rethinking their choice of profession, putting all of us at risk of losing out on medical advances that can dramatically improve, and save, our lives.

In our book, "The Animal Research War," we profiled researchers who have abandoned successful careers because they are unwilling to put their families, in many cases including young children, in danger. One scientist sent an e-mail to his harassers with the subject line: "You win." "Please don't bother my family anymore," he wrote, promising to walk away from an animal research program that had yielded insights offering hope to visually impaired children. Walk, he did.

In Santa Cruz, Calif., in August, a firebomb targeted a researcher who uses rodents in his work. The attack sent the man, his wife and two young children scurrying to safety out a second-story window. The fact that they were targeted at 5 on a weekend morning -- when the whole family was likely to be at home -- frightened researchers everywhere.

The Foundation for Biomedical Research, which tracks attempts to intimidate researchers, has found that a handful of sporadic actions 10 years ago has ballooned to more than a hundred annually. Most involve nonviolent harassment, but a growing number have been violent.

Some of our own colleagues in Portland, Ore., have had to endure black-hooded "ALF-ers" chanting in front of their homes, "2, 4, 6, 8, we know where you sleep at night." The message is clear: Continue your research at your peril.

But set aside the danger to researchers and their families for a moment and think about this from a purely selfish point of view. Those whose life's work is fighting deadly diseases are now themselves under attack. Can we expect them to continue their efforts if they aren't safe in their homes or can't park their cars on public streets?

Research is a trade-off: To learn how to help humans, we engage in animal experimentation. But as part of this trade-off, we have an obligation to see to it that the animals don't feel pain or suffer in other ways. The extremists who threaten scientists ignore the extensive regulations that protect animals used in research. They place their own definition of animal rights ahead of human well-being. They believe in the abstract principle that we can't use animals to supply our food or clothing -- or to support our health, even if doing so, to take just one example, can improve the chances that a child can see.

Whether or not we agree on animal rights and animal research, we should be able to agree that fire-bombing homes and threatening families is not an acceptable way to try to bring about change in a civilized society.

As Michael DeBakey, the famed heart surgeon and Congressional Gold Medal winner, has said, "It is the American public who will decide whether we must tell hundreds of thousands of victims of heart attacks, cancer, AIDS and other dread diseases that the rights of animals supersede a patient's right to relief from suffering and premature death." The time for deciding is now.

P. Michael Conn is a senior scientist at the Oregon Health and Science University's Oregon National Primate Center and a professor at the university's medical school. James V. Parker is a former public information officer at the primate center.

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