BY THE MICHIGAN DAILY
Published January 19, 2009
Each year, the lives of approximately 20 dogs end because of an Advanced Trauma Life Support course at the University. The class, which operates under the supervision of Dr. Richard Burney, a professor of surgery in the Medical School, allows medical students to practice surgery on live dogs. Because of recent allegations by the Physician’s Committee for Responsible Medicine that Burney withheld information from the University to get permission to use canine test subjects, though, this practice has come under fire. Though the situation is complex, if using live dogs for surgery practice is to be continued, the University has a responsibility to demonstrate that it is a superior teaching method with no adequate alternative. If it can’t do that, a more humane teaching method should be used.
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The allegations about the University’s practice came last week by the PCRM in a complaint to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Though the complaint recognizes that the University’s practice is technically legal, it claims that Burney failed to disclose in his request to the University’s Committee on Use and Care of Animals that other, superior testing methods exist for this surgical training. The author of the complaint, Dr. John Pippin, a senior medical and research advisor to the PCRM, asserts that failing to mention the equally sufficient and more humane methods of surgical training could have been illegal.
Since the complaint was filed, the University has responded by questioning the credibility of the PCRM and standing behind the choice of its professor. In a statement, the University described the PCRM as an animal rights group receiving substantial funding from People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. It also claimed that less than 10 percent of PCRM’s members are physicians. In the light of these criticisms, the University has said that it will leave the decision about whether to continue the practice up to Burney.
That response was insufficient. Though it may not be necessary to turn this situation into an ethical debate about whether it is right to euthanize dogs for the sake of medical training, the University must better justify why it allows this testing. As the PCRM pointed out, the Medical School has an anatomical human mannequin called TramaMan that is capable of simulating real surgery. The Medical School could also use the more traditional option of operating on human cadavers. If the University wishes to condone the ethically questionable use of live animals as training subjects, it should first certify that there are no better alternatives.
Certainly, there could be good reasons the University allows this type of animal testing to occur. For one, operating on live dogs might provide a very different psychological experience compared to operating on a mannequin. But the University hasn’t provided reasons like that. Instead, it has left this weighty decision to one professor and subtly dismissed the PCRM’s concerns as animal rights propaganda.
If the University truly believes that its current method is the only way to train these students, it must demonstrate this — rather than leaving it up to one teacher’s opinion. The University has a clear responsibility to ensure that its practices are both ethical and useful.