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The Physicians Committee

Editorial: Toward a More Civilized World

In our work, it is easy to become jaded. We have thousands of heart attacks every day, and one in three of us develops cancer. Americans now eat more than a million animals every hour, which, in turn, contributes to the health problems we suffer from. Overall, our society seems more aggressive and self-destructive than ever, and we wonder if the picture will ever change.

The fact is, it will. If you will permit me to draw a lesson from basic neurology:

In the human nervous system, the nerves that permit an infant or toddler to carry out an action develop before the nerves that inhibit or control that action. So a growing infant clumsily grabs for a ball or a cup before becoming able to handle them carefully. A baby screams and cries before learning how to control outbursts or to turn cries into words. Children gain the ability to hurt others before developing the empathy that puts the brakes on aggression.

A culture matures in the same way. We gain dangerous abilities before we learn to control them. Fast food restaurants arrived well before cardiologists warned that the Golden Arches lead to the Pearly Gates. Scientists gained the ability to experiment on animals in the cruelest ways imaginable long before anyone thought to raise an ethical eyebrow.

Now, for an infant to mature, his or her parents have to confront misbehavior gently, and help the child to learn to do better. For a society to mature, it is our job to confront bad behavior gently, too.

When it became clear that the U.S. government was letting the meat and dairy industries have a major voice in dictating federal diet policies, we gently confronted the government with a successful lawsuit in federal court.

When experimenters planned to inject healthy children with a genetically engineered growth hormone in order to test its ability to make them taller, we went to court again, showing that the experimenters had never explained to the parents or children the risks posed by the injections.

When virtually every medical school forced students to experiment on animals, we confronted them with armies of concerned students who said they didn’t go to medical school to kill their first patient. We?fve won already at more than 100 of the 126 U.S. medical schools, and our work will continue until ethical education is the rule at all medical schools.

When we needed to measure insulin levels in our diabetes study and found that no laboratory had an insulin blood test that did not include cruelly produced animal ingredients, we confronted that lapse by working with laboratory scientists to produce a cruelty-free test that is about to become commercially available to scientists worldwide.

Where unethical research prevails, where doctors fail to help patients prevent disease, where nutrition is simply ignored, when our culture—and our scientific culture—is stuck in its toddler years, our job is to confront that immaturity by doing ethical research, publishing our findings in medical journals, speaking at medical conferences, and doing as many press releases, advertisements, and television programs as it takes to change that behavior.

It takes courage on the part of our physicians, our medical students, and our staffers to confront cruelty and ignorance, and it is because of you—our members—that we are able to succeed. And for that, I thank you. We have a lot more work to do in the next 20 years, and I look forward to continuing to work with you for a healthier and more compassionate world.

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

Neal D. Barnard, M.D.

Good Medicine Cover

Summer 2005
Volume XIV
Number 3

Good Medicine

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