LABORATORY experimentation with animals has yielded and will continue to yield many important benefits to human health. Still, there is no case for continuing to tolerate inhumane treatment of the sort that columnist James J. Kilpatrick described on the opposite page last week.
The 13 years of baboon brain-bashing that Mr. Kilpatrick reported -- now suspended by order of Health and Human Services Secretary Margaret Heckler -- came to light because some angry people made off with more than 60 hours of videotapes from a University of Pennsylvania clinical research center. It would be comforting to think that neither the gruesome experiments nor the ghoulish behavior of the researchers who performed it was characteristic of the treatment given many of the 100 million animals used in research every year. But reports of unnecessary research, avoidable suffering and callous researchers recur with disturbing frequency.
Responsible scientists admit that these reports cannot all be dismissed as propaganda by antivivisectionists. When you find well-documented examples of maltreatment at a center that the director of the National Institutes of Health has called "one of the best laboratories in the world," you are entitled to be suspicious about what goes on at satellite laboratories where supervision and standards are often lax. Neither does the attitude of the medical researchers generally afford grounds for complacency. Scientists are understandably fearful that heavy-handed restrictions on the use of animals might impede highly beneficial research. New techniques, such as computer simulations and bacteria and animal-cell cultures have reduced the need, but for many purposes there is no substitute for using animals for tests. But many researchers have been slow to accept necessary safeguards and are contemptuous of those who argue for some degree of protection.
Many research institutions and animal handlers have already responded to public pressure and are paying more attention to federal guidelines governing the treatment of animals. In May nine federal agencies adopted tighter guidelines for care of animals. However, new NIH policies -- requiring institutions receiving federal grants to set up review committees that must include at least one outside member -- will not go into effect until the end of this year and will still depend heavily on good-faith efforts by institutions, handlers and satellite laboratories. We hope those efforts are made. There is every reason to pursue necessary medical research on animals -- but no reason on Earth for the U.S. government to subsidize sadism.