Animal Experimentation:
A Woman Physician Stands Alone

Animal Experimentation:
A Woman Physician Stands Alone

by Marjorie Cramer, M.D.

I sat on the Amtrak train taking me from New York City to Philadelphia. Every movement of the train made my body hurt: I had a bad case of flu with a sore throat, muscle aches and a general feeling of malaise. I probably felt worse because of my nervousness at what I was undertaking. I was to present a resolution to the Medical Education and Research Committee of the American Medical Women’s Association (AMWA). My mission was to convince the committee members and eventually the membership of AMWA to dialogue with people who are opposed to animal research.

It had taken me many years to formulate my present opinion on animal usage in teaching and research. As a medical student I thought that I would be considered weak if I acknowledged my feelings of pity and horror at the physiology laboratory where cats were literally dissected into pieces, shocked and drugged while still alive. Although I was sickened, I pretended not to see them and not to feel anything, so strong was my desire to obtain that highly prestigious M.D.

After I had long been in private practice as a plastic surgeon, I began to rethink the situation. I read everything I could get my hands on, on every aspect of the question from all points of view. I tried to make sense of the arguments. I began to realize that animal research was not only cruel, it was also lousy science. It was so inexact and so inaccurate as a scientific modality as to be, more often than not, useless and even counterproductive.

About this time, I became aware of the existence of the Medical Research Modernization Committee: A group of physicians and other health professionals who are opposed to animal research exactly because it represents bad science. After so much exploration of the topic, I knew I agreed.

It was the awakening and development of an ecofeminist consciousness that led me to these conclusions. I couldn’t accept the philosophy that people own the earth and must make it yield to them. I believe in these precarious times, when we see the bounty of the earth close to depletion, that such a philosophy is shortsighted at best. The idea that animals exist for us to use is all too typical of our wanton patriarchal attitude: Men can exploit women, and women and men can exploit animals and the earth’s natural resources for their own ends. I was aware that large and ever-growing numbers of women and men shared my position. Surely the members of AMWA, enlightened, educated women doctors who had themselves often experienced oppression and discrimination, would see my viewpoint.

AMWA exists in large part because women physicians felt that the American Medical Association (AMA), bastion of patriarchal power and physician advocacy, doesn’t fairly represent them. I had always thought of AMWA as a rather wonderful organization where women physicians became empowered to work for themselves and all women. I had heard that the leadership was sometimes a bit on the conservative side but that the general membership was open to change. The organization had, however, recently passed a resolution supporting animal research. I believed that if I presented a resolution in which dialogue with those opposed to animal research was called for, in the medical community or in the lay public, and whether for ethical or scientific reasons, that this group would listen and consider the alternatives.

Prior to the meeting I had called several committee members to try to gain support for my proposal. Many expressed support, although some were lukewarm or undecided. One woman, an animal researcher, expressed scorn at the idea and suggested that I speak to “those animal rights people – they are all crazy, they don’t even eat chickens,” rather than to her. She said that she had not been planning to attend the meeting but would definitely do so now. In spite of this rather antagonistic, angry response from one person, I had hopes that this group of women, co-professionals, would support me and see the logic of what I was proposing.

I had armed myself with affidavits from several physicians and scientists who had lost jobs or been harassed for refusing to do animal research. I also brought with me a letter from the editors of a prestigious medical journal, accepting for publication a paper criticizing animal research and a later letter rescinding the agreement. (Over half the editorial board had resigned in protest over this unprecedented decision.) I believed this kind of suppression of minority opinions to be contrary to the scientific method and certainly not in keeping with a feminist consciousness.

Surely, I thought, this could be a great moment for an organization of women physicians. Dialogue would be possible between those who are in favor of animal research and those who are opposed. If the opinion of those opposed was correct, the implications were enormous. Most research is funded by the taxpayer and the amount spent totals billions of dollars. For starters, there would have to be an accounting to the taxpayers.

My thoughts on the train, despite my flu symptoms, were hopeful that this could be an historic moment. My nervousness came because of past experiences with physicians, albeit male, when I tried to discuss this same issue: Shocked surprise that anyone could question these long-held beliefs. Surely we had all undergone our rites of passage together in medical school? Surely we had erased all feelings of empathy for experimental animals from our consciousness? How dare I upset the denial system!

At the committee meeting I was dealt with swiftly and surely. In my naivete, I did not even consider until much later that counter-lobbying might have gone on after my telephone calls. The opposition was well-organized and united. My arguments were not really listened to. My affidavits were refused and the resolution was unanimously defeated, never to be presented to the general membership. As I left the meeting room and the hotel in which the meeting was held to make my way back to the Amtrak station, I kept thinking that this was a group of people whom I could have sworn were women but who behaved in all respects like the worst kinds of macho men: Threatened by change and holding on to their own narrow self-interested beliefs at the expense of others. I felt betrayed – and much worse; victimized. Perhaps it was the flu, but I actually felt as if my very body had been violated. When I called a close friend to comfort me after the experience, I started by saying that I felt as though I had been raped. Gang raped by AMWA!