Editorial: Signs of Progress
PCRM staffers were tabling at a recent medical conference, promoting nonanimal methods in medical education. Some Yale medical students stopped by our booth. They were completely taken aback. “What are you talking about?” they asked. “What kind of medical school kills animals to teach medical students?” They had never heard of such a thing and couldn’t imagine why anyone would even need an alternative.
What a wonderful sign of progress! When PCRM began in 1985, virtually every U.S. medical school used animals to teach physiology, pharmacology, or surgery. In fact, many required students to participate and penalized those who refused. These laboratory exercises not only killed animals, but after an afternoon of fatal experiments on dogs, pigs, or other animals, a bit of each student’s compassion was extinguished forever, too. We resolved to end these exercises, not only to save the animals involved but also to change the entire medical culture. Today, roughly 110 of the 125 U.S. medical schools have eliminated animal exercises from their curricula. And many students are now shocked to learn that such a barbaric practice ever occurred!
Another sign of progress: Health food stores used to be dingy places, where cashiers wore tie-dyed shirts and dusty shelves held uninviting products. Veggie burgers came from a pasty mix. Soymilk was a powder that customers had to stir into water and pour rapidly onto cereal before it precipitated. Today, however, health food stores are huge, beautiful places that sell endless varieties of every imaginable vegetarian product. Healthful eating has become not only convenient, but downright luxurious. And regular grocers have jumped in, too. Several years ago, while visiting my parents in Fargo, N.D., I noticed that supermarkets stocked tofu, veggie dogs, and an abundance of other meatless, dairy-free foods—even in the middle of cattle country. These changes reflect an exploding demand for vegetarian foods.
One more sign of the times: In our recent study testing a vegan diet for diabetes, we wanted to make sure that new volunteers understood what a vegan diet was. To our surprise, most already knew. In contrast to the participants in our studies during the 1990s, many in this new group had vegetarian or vegan friends. They liked the idea of a vegan diet, and they were eager to see what it could do for them.
A growing child doesn’t look taller from one week to the next. But this year’s pencil mark on the wall is noticeably higher than last year’s. Similarly, while it can be difficult to gauge our progress from week to week, it is clear that things are changing. The sensitivities and intelligence of animals are clearer than ever, as are the flaws of animal tests, as amply demonstrated in the Vioxx scandal, among many others. The value of vegetarian and vegan diets for health has become abundantly clear, and more and more people are turning toward them.
Even so, many people have not yet gotten the message. Medical schools that have abandoned the use of animals in teaching still continue to use them in research studies. In poorly thought-out experiments, human volunteers sometimes pay a heavy price, too. Americans now eat more than one million animals per hour. And, overall, the population is in worse shape than ever.
But more people than ever now understand our message. While our work is nowhere near finished, it is heartening to know that we are moving in the right direction. Twenty years from now, medical students may stop by our booth saying, “What? You mean people actually used to eat animals?”
Neal D. Barnard, M.D.
President of PCRM