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Editorial: Activism: PCRM Doctors Speaking Up

They don’t teach us about social activism in medical school. We doctors are comfortable keeping our noses in books and generally confine our moments of assertiveness to writing strong prescriptions or perhaps wielding a scalpel in the operating room. Even though we know that tobacco threatens our patients, we are not likely to storm the gates of cigarette companies. When unethical experiments are exposed, most of us are not eager to take to the streets in protest.

However, PCRM doctors are a different breed. Larry Hansen, M.D., and Nancy Harrison, M.D., knew that the animal laboratory used for teaching medical students at the University of California at San Diego (UCSD) was unethical and unnecessary. Rather than keep quiet about it, they spoke up, both within the University and—literally—on the streets in protest. Students at all the top medical schools do not train on animals, they said. These students apprentice alongside experienced doctors in the operating room and in the hospital, and there is no need for an excursion into an animal laboratory. And it worked. After a long and occasionally acrimonious dialogue, the University of California at San Diego listened and cancelled the animal laboratory.

PCRM doctors do not let unethical research practices or unhealthy habits go unchallenged. They speak up and, in more cases than not, bring important changes.

PCRM’s campaign to end the abuse of animals in medical education has seen consistent victories year after year. Just as the victory at UCSD was announced, we also learned that animal laboratories had also been eliminated from the curricula at Meharry Medical College, Virginia Commonwealth University, and the University of Illinois in Chicago.

The most recalcitrant of the civilian medical schools—the University of Colorado (CU)—changed, too. CU had long forced medical students to participate in experiments that left a room full of dogs dead and students dispirited. The school had intimidated students who wanted no part of it and had to be forced by a lawsuit to allow an exception for students with a religious objection to the laboratories. But after years of PCRM doctors and community groups speaking out, CU finally came to its senses. Last year, the University temporarily suspended the laboratories. This year, it made the change permanent.

Activism takes other forms, too. When PCRM physician Ron Allison, M.D., learned that the American Cancer Society was planning fundraising events that promoted beef, including a “Cattle Barons’ Ball” in Atlanta and other cities and a cattle drive through the streets of an Atlanta suburb, Dr. Allison picked up the phone. As a radiation oncologist, he knows too well that the cancers he treats are caused, more often than not, by unhealthy lifestyle habits, including meaty diets. He called officials at the American Cancer Society and reminded them of the wealth of research studies implicating meat in cancer risk. Before he even hung up the phone, the cattle drive was cancelled. The fundraising balls themselves were not cancelled, however, and at this writing, Dr. Allison and other concerned physicians and cancer survivors are giving ACS the healthy wake-up call it needs.

When I founded PCRM in 1985, I envisioned a “think tank” of perhaps two dozen physicians who would opine on preventive medicine and research issues. But, of course, it is now much more than that. With doctors taking on a strong advocacy role and working with a great many lay supporters, we aim to make research and medical practice truly compassionate and effective.

Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
President of PCRM


Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
Neal D. Barnard, M.D.

Autumn 2003
Volume XII
Number 4

Good Medicine

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