Conscientious Objection

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Working with students to support freedom of conscience and with teachers to introduce alternatives to animal experiments

Some courses within biological science, human and veterinary medicine and other disciplines still involve the harmful use of animals. You may not have anticipated that such animal use would be part of your degree, and if you realise now that there is a tension between your personal ethics and the expectations of some of your teachers, then use this guide to conscientious objection to help find a creative solution. It is based on the experience of other students who have been in the same position as you. Securing humane alternatives to harmful animal use is not always easy, but there is a growing number of teachers who recognise students’ rights to freedom of conscience and to a high quality humane education.

1. Find out the exact situation
Choose an active role. Don’t rely on being told.Talk to your tutor or course leader as early as you can. Find out whether animals are used in the course you have chosen. Ask what species of animals are used, how many and for what purpose. Ask if there is a policy of student choice. Are alternatives provided, and if so, what are they?

2. Decide where you stand Examine your motives. Know yourself. <in the printed version this is part of the text below. and the text in the printed version is in bullet points rather than prose>
According to your own personal ethics, where exactly do you draw the line with respect to animal use? Be able to defend your position. Decide what is an acceptable alternative. Certainly you require a relevant and educationally-valid alternative practical, with equivalent time, effort, learning quality and academic credit – after all, you are paying for your education and you came to university to learn. Refer to the InterNICHE leaflet Introduction to Alternatives. You can succeed on your own, but there can be great strength in numbers. Ask around to discover which other students feel the same as you. Gain the support of friends, and of other teachers if they are sympathetic. Contact InterNICHE at any time you want practical advice and support. Get a realistic feeling of how far you are willing to go in order to stand up for what you believe: if a co-operative solution to the problem can’t be reached then it may be necessary to adopt a more challenging approach.

3. Approach your teacher
Calmly but firmly explain to your teacher that the practice of using animals conflicts with your ethical, moral or spiritual beliefs. You want to learn the course material, but not by harming an animal. Specifically ask for a good alternative, as you intend not to participate in the animal practical and would like to reach a mutually agreeable solution to the problem. Don’t let the teacher intimidate you: you are justified in your feelings and views. But don’t be self-righteous or confrontational, and be prepared to discuss the issue. Anticipate what you might be asked. If your teacher is open to change and you are told that you can use an alternative that is acceptable to you, then ask for this in writing. If the response is non-commital, ask for an answer. If it is negative then you need to present your case in greater depth. It is wise to keep a written record as you go through the process. Include action you have taken, meeting dates and times, the people involved, subjects of conversation and statements or decisions made. Keep copies of written communication and all relevant printed material. Do this now.

4. Research more information
Understand the concept and practice of humane education, and be aware of similar courses in other universities or countries which allow student choice and offer alternatives, or do not use animals at all. Contact your national InterNICHE group and the InterNICHE Co-ordinator for support. Familiarise yourself with the range of alternative methods that are available and the issues around their use such as teaching potential, cost and quality, and what equipment, if any, is needed. Refer to the InterNICHE Alternatives Booklet. Find out in detail the teaching objectives of the practical. With support >from the InterNICHE Alternatives Adviser, design a proposal for replacing the animal practical with an alternative or combination of alternatives suitable for meeting the teaching objectives. Find out what formal procedures there may be for resolving difficulties at the university. Ask a supportive member of staff or your national InterNICHE group for details about staff-student boards, ethics or review committees, and the opportunities for formal exemption from animal use. Gain the backing of the Students Union and the welfare officer. Begin the process now if appropriate. Understand any national or international legislation that can support your position.

5. Submit your case
Present to your teacher an information pack which includes your position and requests, your proposal for replacing the animal practical with full details of suitable alternatives, and all relevant literature. Include a copy of the InterNICHE Alternatives Booklet and details of the InterNICHE Alternatives Loan System. Request a written response. Copy the material to the head of department, the dean, and your supporters, explaining the situation fully. If your requests are met, well done! Ask for confirmation in writing.

6. Use pressure
If the response is still negative then you need to apply pressure. Meet with your supporters for further discussion. Visit the head of department and the dean. Begin formal procedures such as applications to university review committees, if you have not already done so, and appeal to the relevant bodies at national level if your rights are still denied. Inform national civil liberties organisations of your situation, and keep in close contact with InterNICHE. Make the problem public: use your student newspaper and local and national press. Arrange speakers and organise a debate on bioethics, animal use and students’ rights. Launch a petition. If the pressure brings a positive change, congratulations! Ask for confirmation in writing.

7. Consider legal action
If the university still refuses to respect your rights, and you are prepared to continue, then there is the option of a legal challenge. It is possible to take your university to court, and several students in Germany and the USA have indeed won in such cases. Others have lost. Consider carefully the time, money and energy needed for such action.

Support is always available from InterNICHE. Please keep the network informed of your progress – your experience could help other students in the same situation.