Jeff Johnson | Congressional Bureau Chief | Friday, January 3, 2003
Frist admitted in his 1989 book that, while a student at Harvard Medical School, he adopted cats from animal shelters and practiced surgery on the animals. In adopting the cats, however, Frist told shelter staff members he wanted the animals for pets. All of the cats died as a result of the surgeries.
"It was a heinous and dishonest thing to do," Frist wrote in Transplant: A Heart Surgeon's Account of the Life-and-Death Dramas of the New Medicine.
Frist explained that the pressure to perform well at the school was unbelievable, and that he believed at the time that he needed more animals to practice on than were provided.
"I was going a little crazy," he added.
Nick Smith, Frist's communications director, told reporters Tuesday that Frist "denounces" the experiments on and deaths of the cats, "as he has done before."
But supporters of legal status for animals at People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) want Frist to do more than apologize. The group issued a press release Tuesday promoting a letter it had written to Frist, calling on him to "atone for" his past.
"We hope that the remorse you expressed for your actions runs deeper than your concern over having been dishonest with the shelters," wrote Mary Beth Sweetland, senior vice president of PETA.
The group wants Frist to work to transfer funding for federally mandated animal testing programs, "particularly those of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)" to non-animal methods.
"There could be no better way of making some small amends to those animals whose trust you betrayed when you took them from shelters," Sweetland wrote.
PETA wants Frist to examine "three pressing issues that critically affect animals:
Toxicity tests on animals;
Use of animal testing by federal regulators to set human health policies; and
Federal funding for research and development of non-animal test methods.
"One day," Sweetland continued, "we will look back on animal testing with the same disgust with which we now look back on slavery and racism."
Jackie Calnan, president of Americans for Medical Progress (AMP), expected PETA's attack on Frist.
"I'm not surprised that PETA would use any opportunity to gain some media attention for their campaign to destroy biomedical research," Calnan said.
"For PETA to target Senator Frist, demanding that he 'atone' for this 30-some years later, making policy decisions based upon that is standard PETA," she added. "Whatever they can do to make headlines, to get a little extra mileage from a story, to get their extremist message reported in the media."
While Calnan does not condone Frist's unauthorized experiments or his lying to animal shelter staff, she doubts PETA's efforts will have much effect on Frist, who is a pioneer in heart and lung transplant surgery.
"Certainly a transplant surgeon such as Senator Frist is well aware of the need for the use of animal research in transplant surgery, as well as in developing new drugs," Calnan explained. "All of the new surgical procedures that are developed are first tested on animals."
Without the knowledge and skills gained through practice on animals, Calnan argued, surgeons would be unable to complete the lifesaving operations they perform every day.
"Surgeons must be trained on animals to perform new procedures and to learn to use new surgical instruments," she concluded. "I would question if anybody would want to volunteer to be the very first living subject that a surgeon actually wielded a scalpel upon."
Calnan listed a number of medical breakthroughs made possible by animal testing:
Antibiotics for the treatment of bacterial infections;
Vaccines for smallpox, tetanus, diphtheria, polio, measles, lyme disease, hepatitis B and chicken pox, gene therapy, insulin to control diabetes;
Anti-coagulants, anesthesia, and neuromuscular blocking agents;
Chemotherapy for cancer patients;
Pacemaker implants to treat cardiac patients;
Discovery of the HIV virus and development of drugs to control the progression of AIDS; and
Organ transplantation techniques, including those pioneered by Frist.
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