A new edition of the Australian Code for the Care and Use of Animals for Scientific Purposes was released in July this year – the 8th edition of a code dating back to 1969. This code lies at the core of animal research regulation in Australia and its integration into state legislation makes it legally binding.
The body responsible for drafting the new Code was a working committee of daunting proportions. It included representatives from all state and territory regulators, 3 commonwealth government departments, the RSPCA, Animals Australia (which itself represents 40 animal protection organisations), the research sector, funding bodies and an independent expert. Their equally daunting workload began four years ago with a targeted consultation generating 70 submissions. A public consultation followed which generated another 240 submissions leaving the working party with about 5,000 individual comments to be considered. With this diversity of input, it is important to dispel the notion implied in some commentaries that the Code is a policy of the NHMRC alone.
Apart from being considerably longer than the previous edition (the body of the text has grown by about 50%), there is a particularly important development in the structure of the new Code: its four Governing Principles. The entire first section is devoted to defining these Principles and to add further emphasis, they are reiterated frequently throughout the rest of the document.
The Governing Principles highlight the obligation to respect animals and to consider whether the effect on animal wellbeing is justified by the benefits from their use in research. Each Principle is further developed to encompass the obligation to seek alternatives, the 3Rs, safeguarding animal wellbeing, the importance of proper experimental design and the obligation to accept responsibilities. The Governing Principles’ emphasis on respect and justification, although not entirely new, now has a far higher profile and more clearly defines theCode as a framework for ethical decision-making and not merely a legalistic regulatory document.
During the preparation of the Code, much discussion went into the use of the word ‘must’ rather than ‘should’ in relation to achieving outcomes. This has raised the bar in a number of specific areas (training and competency assessment for example) although the most far-reaching is probably the requirement that all institutions must now undergo an external review at least every four years. Previously, an external review was recommended but not actually mandated in all states. The introduction of mandatory external reviews in all jurisdictions should provide greater reassurance that the self-regulatory components of the system are meeting with compliance.
The new Code continues with the Animal Ethics Committee (AEC) system as the heart of the ethical decision-making process. With 3 out of its 4 membership categories comprising representatives from animal welfare and the broader community, the AEC structure allows a degree of informed, case-by-case ethical assessment that would be difficult under a more distant, centralized structure.
As with previous editions, the new Code is utilitarian in its philosophical position. That is, it is permissive of animal research provided it can be justified in the interests of the greater good. While this will always conflict with an uncompromising rights-based view where no amount of potential benefit could justify animal use, utilitarianism covers a broader range of ethical positions including that expounded by Peter Singer which places a very strict limit on what could be justified. This flexibility seems appropriate for a pluralistic society such as Australia.
Overall, the new Code’s Governing Principles send a particularly strong message about the importance of respect and justification in the ethical decision-making process. Those close to the AEC system will know how hard committee members work to achieve ethical outcomes. Perhaps the greatest challenge now lies with the institutions among whose duties – clearly enshrined in the new Code – is to support their AECs and ensure they are free to consider values and not just the mechanics of research.