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Ethics — Earthworms »squirming with pain« do not belong in the classroom, medical student Clara Turner wrote on Facebook. She got a ‘love storm’ from her fellow students, but a shitstorm from the press.
»In defence of an earthworm.« This was the first line of a posting by Clara Turner on a Facebook group for medical students at the University of Copenhagen in November. »I didn’t sign up to the taking of life when I became a medical student,« she continued.
As part of a compulsory class in the bachelor’s degree programme in medicine, Clara Turner and her fellow students were asked to perform an experiment. They pinned down earthworms with needles, and passed electric current through them.
»This can not in any way be considered a ‘dignified demise,’« Clara Turner wrote.
The earthworm experiment is about investigating the axons, that are a kind of nerves, Clara Turner says to the University Post. She was in a group with three fellow students when they had to learn about nerve impulses and this included carrying out the worm experiment.
»I felt bad about it from the beginning. We saw a video of the experiment first. And I could feel, already there, that this was not something I wanted to do.«
The earthworm is sedated by immersion into a glass of methanol until it stops squirming about so much. Then it is put in a box and attached with needles. The needles also function as measurement electrodes while fixing the worm. The students send electricity through the needles and read an electrical response on a computer.
Clara’s initial discomfort with the experiment was not abated when her group’s specimen did not behave as they expected:
»Our results looked a bit weird, so our instructor came over and dialled up the power to get better results.«
During the process, the group had to start again with a new earthworm. The first experiment did not give the right results, either because it had died along the way or had been given too much of a sedative.
The next earthworm was sedated less and squirmed even more.
»You can discuss whether the earthworm feels pain, or whether this is just a reflex, but I am sure that it would not have chosen this on its own,« says Clara Turner.
Clara had to get up and leave, but she pulled herself together and went back to the laboratory to complete the experiment. She had no choice, as the lesson was compulsory if the students are to pass the course.
And Clara thinks this is a problem. She agrees that animal experiments may be necessary. But she would prefer to save her experiments for actual research.
The students would obtain the same knowledge without the experiments on live animals, she believes:
In the course of the teaching, they could show a video that illustrates the experiment, and students could continue to work theoretically with the experiment subsequently.
»It may seem strange to have a soft spot for a worm. But for me this is more about how we humans act towards other species than it is about the specific earthworm.«
To those students who like doing experiments with animals, Clara Turner says:
»There are plenty of places where there is a need for medical students in the laboratories. They can do the experiments there. I can’t see why we all have to sit there, roasting earthworms.«
At the University of Copenhagen, all new cohorts of bachelor students in medicine repeat the earthworm experiment, but this is not the case in other universities, Clara Turner points out.
»And the medical students that come out of Aarhus University, are just as good doctors as we are,« she says.
Daniel Pedersen is one of the students who contacted Clara Turner on Facebook. He confirms that he did not have to take part in animal experiments when he was doing his bachelor’s degree in medicine at Aarhus University.
»When we learned about action potential in physiology, we had, respectively, a lecture and classroom teaching. We did our calculation assignments and watched videos with the electrical simulation of muscles. No worms were harmed,« he says.
Niels Uldbjerg is deputy head of department at the Department of Clinical Medicine at Aarhus University. He confirms that there are no experiments on live animals on the bachelor’s degree programme, but »on the master’s programmes we have a compulsory course where students operate on living pigs.«
The pigs have been bred for research, and a small proportion of them are used for educational purposes. There is not necessarily anything wrong with the pigs before the experiments, »but they do not wake up afterwards,« says Niels Uldbjerg.
It may seem strange to have a soft spot for a worm. But for me this is more about how we humans act towards other species than it is about the specific earthworm.
At the University of Southern Denmark SDU, you can become a medical doctor without experimenting on animals:
»We do not use animal experiments any longer on the medical degree programme at SDU. Neither on the bachelor’s degree nor the master’s. On further education and vocational study programmes we use animal experiments,« writes Bjarne Rønde Kristensen, who is Head of Studies for the medical degree programme at University of Southern Denmark in a text message to the University Post.
It has not been possible to get an elaboration on why the animal experiments were phased out.
Bengt Holst is chairman of the Danish Animal Ethics Council. He does not wish to comment on the specific earthworms experiment. But he would like to talk about some of the general ethical perspectives.
»In order to do these experiments, you need to obtain permission from the Danish Animal Experiments Inspectorate. They assess whether the disadvantages to the animal are proportional to the purpose,« he says.
»When it comes to animal testing, you should always consider the possibility of replacing live animals with simulations. And if this is not possible, you should minimise the number of animals used in the experiments. In addition, it is necessary to continuously refine the methods and, if possible, to relieve the pain of the animals.«
You can, of course, discuss ethics in doing animal experiments, he says. But the response will depend on what kind of ethics is your point of departure:
»You can argue from a utilitarian ethics, which says that if the experiment has a good purpose, and the purpose is proportional with the disadvantages it causes for the animal, then it is OK.«
Danish animal welfare legislation applies to all animals, he says, but there is a difference between species, and their experience of pain.
»That is why you can be punished for animal cruelty towards a horse or a bird. But not for stepping on an earthworm.«
We know very little about the experience of pain of the earthworm, he says:
»With the knowledge we have now, there is nothing to suggest that the earthworm experiences pain, even though it reacts to influences that in us would provoke pain.«
The University of Copenhagen’s
They respect the opinions of students, they write, but choose to maintain the exercises, because they make good learning sense. They refer to legislation that permits animal experiments in the classroom.
Our experience shows that students understand and remember much better if they themselves carry out practical experiments.
Heads of teaching at UCPH
»One key consideration for us is that the knowledge that we base most of the patient treatment on, is primarily from animal testing. The exercises generally provide students with insight into working with biological material, sources of error, and variation in measurements, and they shape the basis of a deeper understanding of biological processes in living tissue. All of this is valuable learning that has direct relevance to working with patients and biological material taken from patients.«
The instructors dismiss Clara Turner’s idea of a video recording replacing of the earthworms experiment:
»The students are already spending a lot of time ‘on screen’, and the purpose of the exercise is to show that biology takes place in the real world. Our experience shows that students understand, and remember, much better if they themselves carry out practical experiments.
When Clara Turner wrote her post in defence of the earthworm, she received several comments from her fellow students, who shared her reservations about animal experiments in the classroom.
»I’ve received a lot of private messages from people who don’t want their name in the comments because they expect to be ridiculed. I would like to be the voice of those who do not want to stand up for themselves.«
Clara Turner is not afraid of being ridiculed, even though she understands her fellow students’ reservations. She paused and took a deep breath before posting her text, she says.
She then, however, attracted the attention of the literature editor of the Danish news site Berlingske Søren Jacobsen Damm. He used his column to ridicule her points of view under the headline ‘Now the young »Generation Delicate« is crying for a suffering earthworm: This could be dangerous’.
On being singled out as the spokesman for ‘ultra-sensitive youth’ in the media, Clara Turner says:
»It actually takes courage to take on an unpopular ethical standpoint. Fortunately, young people nowadays have the courage to do so. It’s hard to stand up as a tiny medical student and defend a tiny earthworm. And in front of a mammoth organisation like the University of Copenhagen.«