The knotty ethical question of how the rights and interests of animals should weigh against human interests is a very emotional one on all sides. And it is currently being examined in a growing number of statehouses, city-council chambers, and congressional legislative offices.
Nationwide, at least 78 bills - 67 of them at the state level - have been introduced soPsx4 /o year at some level of government aimed at restricting the use of animals for scientific research. That compares with 60 such proposed bills during all of 1983, according to the Foundation for Biomedical Research, which notes a boost in activism for the animal-rights movement.
The thrust of this movement now is directed toward keeping medical researchers from using animals left in pounds and shelters. Many of these dogs and cats are pets - according to this point of view - and should not be made to suffer as subjects for experimentation. Rather, laboratories should use animals bred especially for research, critics say.
On the other side, medical scientists say the results of the research save human lives, and that the unclaimed pound animals will only be destroyed if they are not used for research.
The biggest success so far for animal-rights advocates came in Massachusetts, when a bill was passed recently which bans the delivery of dogs and cats from pounds to laboratories and the importing of pound animals from out of state.
Although there are seven states that ban research on animals from local shelters, only Massachusetts has closed its borders to such animals from out of state which are destined for its laboratories.
The current battle is in California, where a bill similar to the Massachusetts law has passed the state Senate and is now before a committee in the state Assembly.
The California bill has some heavyweight sponsorship in Senate president pro tem David Roberti (D) of Los Angeles, who last year launched a political action committee for animals: ROAR-PAC (Respect Our Animals Rights).
Although Democrats tend to support animal welfare bills more often than Republicans, the issue does not appear to cut along party lines. An outspoken opponent of Senator Roberti's bill in the Senate, in fact, was a fellow Democrat who happens to be a veterinarian.
ROAR-PAC's executive director, David Nagler, compares the issue to the gun-rights issue, which tends to be supported by Republicans more often than Democrats, but also does not follow party lines closely.
Like gun-rights supporters, animal-rights supporters tend to be eager to help sponsor campaigns, and Mr. Nagler says his PAC will support state legislature candidates from either party who have good voting records on animal issues.
The Roberti bill, like the Massachusetts law, does not ban research using animals, only pound animals. For many active supporters of the bill, however, it is only a step toward the broader goal of stopping the sacrificing of any animals for science.
Stuart Jamieson, director of Stanford University's heart and lung transplant program, says many supporting Roberti's bill don't understand it very well.
''The majority of these people,'' he says, ''believe the bill will stop mad, butchering scientists from seizing pets.''
Dr. Jamieson does research experiments on animals himself. Most of this work is done on laboratory rats, but for the remainder he uses ''condemned'' animals retrieved from pounds. When he is developing a new medical procedure, for example, he will try it on a large animal, such as a dog, as a final test before attempting it on a human patient. The animal subjects get the same treatment and pain relief, he adds, as human patients.
''I'm sympathetic to people who don't like animal experimentation. I don't like it myself,'' he says. For the pain the animals suffer, ''the only justification is that we are going to save human lives.''
The medical alternatives to doing tests on animals are not realistic, in Dr. Jamieson's view. People glibly talk of using computers to simulate experiments, he says, but medical professionals don't.
To ban researchers from using pound animals that will be put to death simply means that twice as many animals will be sacrificed when researchers use specially bred animals instead, Jamieson adds.
But that argument misses the point, says Gretchen Wyler, vice-chairwoman of the Fund for Animals. Animals destroyed at pounds don't suffer, she explains, but are destroyed through painless means. Those subjected to pain and disease for reasons of research do suffer, and this she finds unconscionable.
While Ms. Wyler is actually against all vivisection, she prefers to see specially bred animals used in research rather than pound animals. The pound animals are much more frightened by the laboratory environment, she says, and are less efficient for scientific purposes because their backgrounds and health conditions are so random and unknown.
If scientists had to use the more expensive, specially bred animals, she says , ''You can bet they would use fewer animals.''
A veterinarian at the University of California at Davis, Ned Buyukmihci, also favors the Roberti bill. Most important, he says, is the clause that demands pain relief for animal subjects.
About the larger ethical question of sacrificing animals for human health, he asks, ''To what extent do we debase our character to extend our own lives?''