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The only way is ethics

Madeleine Campbell’s introduction to veterinary ethics began a couple of years ago and has taken her in a new direction. She has just embarked on research looking at the ethics of assisted reproductive techniques in animals

A couple of years ago I was asked by Defra to join a group providing it with expert advice on ways in which it might fulfil its obligations under the European Biodiversity Treaty to protect rare breeds of horse in the event of a catastrophic outbreak of infectious disease. The request was set against the background of increased awareness of the risk of African horse sickness infecting our naive horse population.

The group discussed the various assisted reproductive techniques, the low success rates in equids compared with some other species, and why many of the techniques for conserving genetic material from both sexes would be difficult to use in rare breeds such as native ponies, which weren’t used to being handled. At the end of this rather depressing discussion, a suggestion was made by one contributor that the solution was to take skin biopsies and store them so that if and when infectious disease struck they could be used to clone rare breed animals. I found myself having a gut reaction against this idea, and yet was unable at that time to rationalise why I found cloning ethically unacceptable but happily engaged in artificial insemination (AI), embryo transfer (ET) and embryo vitrification. Thus began my interest in why and how we each draw the line that delineates what we are and are not prepared to do to our patients; sometimes that line is drawn for us by the law, but often it is a matter of personal ethical judgement.

I was given further opportunity to explore these ideas when I was invited to speak on the ethics of animal cloning at the BVA Animal Welfare Foundation’s 2010 Discussion Forum. While researching the issues surrounding cloning, I became aware that, despite being a specialist who has worked in equine reproduction for over a decade, I had never been challenged to consider the ethical implications of my work. My training had focused exclusively on acquiring technical skills, and I had never been forced to stop and ask that crucial question: ‘Just because we can, should we?’.

As has been the pattern of my career, one thing led to another . . . I was appointed a member of the BVA Ethics and Welfare Group, which has proved fascinating and fed my interest. For some time, mindful of the advice given to me by my mentor Angus McKinnon never to cut myself off from either practice or academia, and having enjoyed my PhD as much as I enjoy my work, I had been speculating about how I might undertake some research that would enable me to use and develop the skills I had learnt in my first (history) degree with those that I have acquired as a vet. The possibility of undertaking some research in veterinary ethics relating to my clinical speciality seemed to offer just that opportunity.

Encouraged and supported by Christopher Wathes, professor of animal welfare at the Royal Veterinary College, I started work on a proposal that ended up involving Marie Fox, a lawyer with an interest in animal law, and Peter Sandoe, a philosopher with an interest in animal ethics. The Wellcome Trust offers a unique Biomedical Ethics Fellowship Award Scheme, which provides funding for research for healthcare professionals (including vets) to undertake training in the discipline of ethics. I am lucky to be the first vet to be awarded such a fellowship, to study the ethics of assisted reproductive techniques (ARTs) in non-human mammals. Part of the award enables me to undertake a Masters in Medical Ethics and Law.

Animal breeding has become increasingly high-tech, so that we have moved from a situation where natural cover was the norm to a situation in which ARTs, particularly AI, but also in-vitro fertilisation, ET, semen and embryo freezing and cloning, are practical techniques. The regulation of ARTs in veterinary science is underdeveloped compared to human medicine, and consequently what it is and isn’t reasonable to do is largely the decision of the individual vet.

Research

My research is divided into three studies: ‘Why the law is different for humans and for non-human mammals’; ‘What the philosophical and ethical implications of legal differences are’, and ‘The development of guidelines for use in clinical practice and suggestion of a technique for ethical clinical decision making in veterinary reproductive practice’. My key goals are the initiation of and contribution to debate about what the legal and ethical issues relating to veterinary ARTs are, the establishment of a recognised and appropriate technique for ethical decision- making in relation to clinical veterinary ARTs, and dissemination of the research to policymakers, regulators, monitors, clinicians and interested members of the public.

A veterinary degree affords an enormous diversity of opportunity. I hope that my appointment will enable me to start developing a research group of veterinary surgeons who, like me, are interested in the ethical issues and dilemmas that arise from their clinical work. Public interest in the ethics of animal use is high and increasing, as illustrated by recent media coverage of animals with prosthetic limbs, breeding of pedigree dogs, and the Grand National and the whip rule changes. Veterinary ethics, like veterinary medicine, ought, in my view, to be evidence-based. With our clinical know-ledge and expertise, vets are uniquely placed to contribute to the debate. If there are any vets out there who are interested in applied ethics, please get in touch.