Groups representing disabled veterans and medical researchers warned this week that legislation banning most medical experimentation on dogs at the Department of Veterans Affairs would deprive veterans of needed medical breakthroughs, and thus represents a dangerous policy change for America's war heroes.
It's a tricky argument for the groups, in part because it pits two worthy and popular causes against each other: animal rights, and ensuring that injured U.S. soldiers get the best medical treatment possible.
Last week, those seeking improved treatment for animals had their say. Rep. Dave Brat, R-Va., proposed an amendment to a package of four spending bills for the next fiscal year, which included VA funding.
Brat's amendment banned any VA funding for testing or other activities that bring certain levels of pain to dogs. The amendment passed overwhelmingly, in a voice vote, after a debate in which no one spoke against it.
That easy vote took opponents of the language by surprise, but some have indicated they will work to stop or amend it. They are starting with the argument that the amendment discounts the wounded veterans who stand to benefit from research on animals.
"When House members voted on July 26, 2017 to ban all VA medical testing that causes pain to animals, specifically targeting VA's canine research program, it was the first step toward a complete devaluation of the lives of catastrophically injured veterans," said Sherman Gillums Jr., executive director of Paralyzed Veterans of America, in an op-ed Tuesday.
Gillums appears to be backed by the VA itself. The VA hasn't taken a formal position on the bill, but the VA's own website indicates strong support for continued animal testing for the sake of helping veterans.
"VA's animal research program has saved lives in the past and will save lives in the future," said Dr. Michael Fallon, the VA's chief veterinary medical officer. "It's important for people to recognize that canine research is essential to developing crucial medical advancements to help veterans and non-veterans alike."
Fallon stressed that just 0.05 percent of its animal testing involves dogs, and he and other medical professionals say testing on dogs is often necessary at certain stages of research.
The VA's stated position is backed by outside medical experts who say dogs are still needed in certain cases.
Cindy Buckmaster, board chairperson for Americans for Medical Progress, told the Washington Examiner that dogs have cardiovascular systems that are similar to those found in humans. She said many of the medical techniques used to help treat people for diabetes and cardiovascular disease were worked out through testing on dogs, which she said shows the value of continuing, at the VA and elsewhere.
Supporters of the research ban dismiss this line of thinking, and argue there is simply no need in the modern era to subject animals to any testing, especially tests the inflict pain. But she and Paula Clifford, executive director for Americans for Medical Progress, took issue with claims that there are other ways to research medical treatments without using animals.
"The bill based on idea that the work isn't necessary," Clifford said. "That's not true, the work is necessary."
The two sides are also feuding over what happened at the VA clinic in Richmond, Va., that prompted Brat to introduce his amendment.
During last week's debate in the House, Brat said the VA was needlessly inflicting pain on test canines, and that a report from the VA's Office of Research Oversight showed that dogs were being subjected to abuse.
"From what I read, the type of work they were doing was on the level of torture," he said. "In Richmond, this included inducing heart attacks. At other labs, the VA was giving methamphetamine to narcoleptic Dobermans."
But Buckmaster said reports of excessive cruelty are unfounded. The VA's oversight report, released at the end of May, said officials could not "conclusively determine" signs of negligence or incompetence at the VA, even though it found a case in which a sedative was inappropriately administered to a dog.
It also found no evidence that the VA was trying to hide its use of dogs in medical research, as some charged, or that the VA kept shoddy medical records.
Given these findings, opponents of Brat's language say it's an extreme solution to a moderate problem, one that would eradicate most of the VA's substantial research with dogs that is used to better the lives of veterans.
Under his amendment, all studies resulting in pain to dogs in categories D or E, as defined by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, would not be allowed. Buckmaster said category D procedures, which typically involve surgeries that cause pain that can be relieved through anesthesia or other means, are the most common performed by the VA, and said ending those procedures would essentially end most of the VA's work.
In a statement to the Washington Examiner, Brat defended the language by saying it would prevent "only the most painful and distressing procedures" at the VA.
"Experiments that use procedures that are non-painful or slightly discomforting for dogs will continue," he said.
The immediate goal for opponents of Brat's amendment is to keep it out of a final spending bill for the VA, something that Congress will work on when it gets back from the August break.
Gillums of Paralyzed Veterans of America said his group will argue that the bill goes too far by banning all medical research on dogs, even when the pain can be mitigated by anesthetics.
"This would significantly limit research potential and cures for profoundly disabling conditions, in both humans and animals, for which there's presently no relief," he told the Washington Examiner. "It could also lead to interpretations of the bill that ban all animal research."
He said educating lawmakers is key, and said Brat's use of the word "torture" on the House floor "distracts from the benefits of this research." He said the VA already has strict rules in place for this research, and that researchers should be held accountable if they actually torture animals or violate those standards in other ways.
"But banning all animal research without first gaining a full understanding of what the research community considers 'humane,' not politicians evoking images of helpless animals being subjected to claims of torture, is one way to ensure disabled persons who are hanging on to hope will have nothing left to hope for, if this bill passes," he said.
Gillums said a major challenge is teaching lawmakers how the research in question can help people with spinal cord injuries, circulatory problems and other treatable diseases.
"A good place to start might be to have them visit veterans who will face these conditions for the rest of their lives," he said. "Explain to them why a ban on certain types of animal research is necessary, even if it holds the key to potential breakthroughs that could change their lives."