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UC’s Training Practices Come Under Fire

The University of Cincinnati has recently come under scrutiny for its routine use of pigs for surgical training, with the Physicians’ Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM) telling its readers:

“UC has its general surgery residents cut into live pigs and perform invasive procedures as part of their training, even though 196 of 256 surveyed U.S. residencies do not use animals.”

The committee has filed a complaint with the USDA, who have begun an investigation. 

PCRM believes that UC has violated the Animal Welfare Act, which states (with what is presumably intentional ambiguity) that painful procedures should be limited to those that are “unavoidable for the conduct of scientifically valuable research.”

According to PCRM’s press release: 

“Under the Animal Welfare Act, researchers and course instructors must consider alternatives to procedures that may cause more than momentary or slight pain or distress to an animal.”

The Animal Welfare Act is the only piece of legislation in the United States purporting to protect research animals, yet it includes only 5% of the animals used as research subjects, and pigs are not among them. 

As explained by BeFairBeVegan:

“The Animal Welfare Act specifically excludes mice, rats, birds, farmed animals, amphibians and reptiles. Not only does this mean the legislation fails to protect more than 95 percent of the animals used for research, it also illustrates clearly how such legislation serves the researchers rather than the test subjects, by fooling the consumer into believing that research subjects receive some kind of meaningful legal protection, and offering legal sanctification to a horrifically brutal practice that ought long ago to have been buried in the past where it belongs.”

The absurdity of the Animal Welfare Act notwithstanding, The Physicians’ Committee does have statistics on its side. 77% of US residencies eschew the use of pigs during their surgical training in favor of more ethical methods which have also been shown to be more effective, such as human cadavers, laparoscopic simulators, partial task trainers, human-patient simulators, and virtual reality simulators. Even veterinary schools are finding simulators to be an effective alternative to the use of live animals. 

UC, of course, claims that it “fully complies” with all USDA laws and regulations, pointing out that the pigs are anesthetized during any of the 20 different invasive surgeries, which can include having their bowels, intestines, or even parts of their skulls removed.

Claims about the benefits of training using pigs, or what proponents euphemistically call “live tissue,” center around how similar pigs are to humans relative to other animals. However, pigs have a number of important anatomical differences, and PCRM’s director of academic affairs claims that educational rationales for the use of pigs are feeble. Human simulators and human cadavers offer a more realistic surgical experience, and students who learn procedures in this outdated way would simply have to learn all over again when they get into a real operating room, where they are expected to perform the procedure on an actual human body.

In addition, those in favor of using non-human animals as tools for surgical training often overstate the benefits while completely ignoring the costs to the mental health of students.

A subtype of PTSD called Perpetration Induced Traumatic Stress Disorder (PITS) gets its name when the symptoms of PTSD are caused by the actual acts of killing or harming others. Normally, we think of PTSD when we consider the victims of violence. However, in cases where students are forced to inflict harm on other living creatures, the perpetrators (the students) become victims of trauma as well. Again, from BeFairBeVegan:

“Perpetration Induced Traumatic Stress Disorder (PITS) has been found to occur when the symptoms of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) are caused by an act or acts of killing or similar horrific violence and include intrusive imagery (dreams, flashbacks, nightmares, unwanted thoughts) paranoia and explosive outbursts of anger.” 

The outcome of PCRM’s investigation might depend heavily on whether the USDA and its “Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service” are using the more contemporary usage of the word “necessary.” From a legal perspective, what’s “necessary” has historically meant what is efficient for any socially-accepted form of animal use.

Animal welfare legislation works within this ownership model of animals. As long as animals can be bred, bought and sold like merchandise, they will always be exploited by humans. 

A Pew Research Center poll found that 52% of people believe animals should not be used in scientific research, and most of the opposition who favored animal research did so because (ignorant of the new scientific advancements) they believed that animals were necessary to advance scientific research. Not only is the practice of using pigs as surgical training unnecessary and potentially harmful to the students, but it is unwanted by the general public. It is time for the legal use of “necessary” to catch up with the colloquial use of the word. 

The USDA and Plant Health Inspection Service have said little about the complaint other than that they are “looking into it.”

 

References

https://www.cincinnati.com/story/news/2021/05/25/usda-investigating-ucs-use-live-pigs-surgical-training/5126903001/

 https://www.pcrm.org/news/news-releases/doctors-file-federal-complaint-over-uc-surgery-training

 https://www.hsvma.org/simulators_expand_training_reduce_harmful_animal_use_veterinary_schools_042611

 

Image: Matthias Zomer from Pexels

 

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