First, do no harm
Ellie Dombrowski | Thursday, March 7, 2019
Stuart Little, The Rats of Nimh, Charlotte’s Web. Penicillin, meningitis vaccines, antibody therapy. These are sides of a spectrum I could not reconcile. If you are like I was, these two lists first appear unrelated. Much to my dismay, rats have been instrumental in the development of medicine. I learned this when I applied to work at a variety of behavioral pharmacology labs the summer before college. I understood that I would have to work with various narcotics, but I didn’t think that I would be working with live animals. Little did I know it would be an experience I would never forget.
The white walls were lined with rats — some were sleeping, some metabolizing drugs and some climbing or eating. This was the moment when medicine first felt real. Dozens of cages lined the walls of this room. All were being used for testing, all were deprived of normality and all would eventually be euthanized. This was the interruption of my expectations that prompted an ethical dilemma. Was it moral to harm animals for the betterment of humanity? Was it moral to subject these innocent animals to a life of poking and prodding?
The smell of synthetic gloves and rat litter permeated my senses. Laying out the needles, my mentor picked up a rat and handed it to me. The circumstances suddenly became overwhelming. Seeing my panic, my mentor took the rat from me, and swiftly injected it with saline. He invited me to try again. Wobbly, I picked up the second rat. I selected a needle, turned my hand palm-up, and pushed the needle into its pinched skin. Ripping through the silence, the rat let out a squeal. Yanking the needle out, I stared at my mentor in horror. The same question seemed to arise. Was I disregarding my morals by prodding these rats to better our understanding of the human body? Does this seemingly selfish use of animals justify our pursuits? My mentor assured me that I wasn’t hurting the rat, it was only expressing its discomfort. One must have a swift technique to avoid any unease. He also added that, depending on the narcotic, rats may be more susceptible to aggression. Taking a deep breath, I tried again. Once more, I failed. I felt like I had not only failed my mentor, but my morals as well. The day seemed to never end.
I could not comprehend why the National Institute of Health would fund any kind of animal research. I dreaded going back the next day. The stereotypes appeared to be true — doctors and scientists were robots. So, I assumed that I would have to switch professions. I wanted to become a doctor so that I could help people. If the basis of medicine was harm and pain, how could I think what I was doing was right? I was rather conflicted. How could I pursue my interests when my environment would not coincide with my line of ethics?
Behavioral pharmacology did not leave me with a positive first impression. Seeking to resolve my dismay, I expressed my distress to my lab members and asked them for advice. It was this combination of listening to others and exploring the research more that changed my mind. I learned that it was not Stuart Little or penicillin; the world was not simply black or white. Scientists are considerate of the multifaceted nature of life. Furthermore, researchers ensure that these acts are not unnecessary and harmful for anyone involved. There are systems and rules in place to protect these animals. Although I do not like that the animals are euthanized after experimentation, it saves them from the potential side effects that the research could have inflicted. Hence, these two sides of the spectrum are — in fact — not discrete entities. It is Stuart Little and meningitis, Charlotte’s Web and penicillin and The Rats of Nimh and antibody therapy.
Resolving the ethical questions intertwined in these characters and medical discoveries was difficult. But, I was forced to recognize my discomforts, consider various perspectives and build on my character to resolve my inquiries.
My purpose in life is to be deontologically driven by my principles. Now, I can see the values and limitations of questioning our own ethical norms. We learn a lot by simply asking the right question. For me, the right question was whether I should have to change who I was to do what I want to do. We are all driven by our own line of ethics. So, we must learn that our morals are a guiding factor, and we should use them in decision making. Primum non nocere: First, do no harm.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.