A bill of rights for rabbits?
That may sound farfetched, but animal rights groups and the scientific research community are facing off in Congress over a bill to protect rabbits from laboratory abuse.
Under increasing public pressure, the House Subcommittee on Science and Technology approved a bill in June that would eliminate federal funding for labs where animals are subject to allegedly cruel and unnecessary experimentation.
''The bill was designed to provide a framework by which the public can be assured that the government is providing safeguards for animals,'' says Donald Rheem, Republican technical consultant for the subcommittee that drafted the bill.
Although the bill would protect all laboratory animals, the plight of rabbits in cosmetic testing has evoked perhaps the greatest public concern. Rabbits are subject to the Draize test - a consumer product experiment performed by applying substances from shampoos to oven cleaners to the eyes of conscious rabbits. Damage to the rabbits' eyes is measured in order to determine the product's potential harm to humans.
The cosmetic industry uses the test to meet safety requirements set by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). However, in the face of growing public disapproval, the industry has now provided more than $2 million toward developing alternatives.
''A couple of years ago finding an alternative to the Draize test was considered a flaky issue. Now it's being discussed as a subject worthy of serious consideration,'' says Henry Spira, who heads the the Coalition to Stop the Draize Rabbit Blinding Tests. More than 400 animal welfare groups now support the coalition.
Opponents of the test say it is outdated.
''It's subjective, it's inaccurate, it's a horrible predicter . . . no two laboratories can agree on the results of the Draize test,'' says Dr. William Douglas, who is doing research on alternatives at Tufts University.
Yet other scientists say live animal testing is essential. Dr. Robert Hopkins , who conducts live animal research at Tufts, says sacrificing an animal is less cruel than allowing a potentially hazardous product to reach the market.
Anti-vivisectionists counter that argument by saying there is no significant difference between animal and human life. They also claim that scientific conservatism and bureaucratic inertia are the real reasons why no alternatives have been adequately funded until recently.
Despite efforts by animal rights activists, the Draize test will only be replaced once an alternative has been validated by the FDA - a process that scientists estimate could take up to 10 years.
So activists say their immediate aim is to reduce the number of animals subjected to the test. Already they have achieved some success in the cosmetic industry.
Dr. Earl Brauer, vice-president of medical affairs at Revlon Inc., says the cosmetic company's research center has reduced the number of rabbits it uses by 20 percent over the past year - using computers to identify products with similar formulas to avoid duplication of testing, restricting the number of individuals authorized to perform the Draize test, and establishing an in-house panel to oversee all testing.
The bill now in Congress was designed, according to Rheem, not to interfere with scientific enterprise but to ensure minimum standards of treatment for laboratory animals. But it still faces opposition.
One of the most controversial aspects of the bill, he explains, requires facilities using federal funds for live animal research to to meet government standards within 10 years or lose the funding.
The bill is also hampered by a lack of coordination among animal rights groups and a financially tight Congress, says Rheem.
Jonathan Delano, an aide to Rep. Douglas Walgren (D) of Pennsylvania who proposed a now-defunct animal rights bill, defends the laboratory use of animals only if the technique proves justifiable in terms of human benefit. He says needless experimentation must be stopped. The pending legislation is needed, he says, to ''heighten awareness in the scientific community and to provide greater incentives for research so that we don't just continue with business as usual.''