In human medicine, the relationship between the doctor and the patient is clear: the first goal of the doctor is the health of his or her patient. This is actually provided for by the Declaration of Geneva adopted by the General Assembly of the World Medical Association in 1948. The text provides for an oath to be pronounced by every person who starts to practice human medicine. And the text is pretty straightforward: “The health of my patient will be my first consideration”. Now in practice, not all the medical doctors do swear that specific oath and on a daily basis this well crafted principle must be complicated to apply, but at least, the priority of the profession I clearly stated (and has been since 1948).
On the basis of that oath, doctors practicing human medicine will often oppose other groups, such as the employers. People using humans as employees are often confronted with doctors stating that a particular patient should not work or that a certain group of human beings are to work less or in more favourable conditions. This is because doctors practicing human medicine are not interested in the efficiency of a particular business or country – but only in the health of the patient.
What is asked of veterinarians is quite different.
As a professional group, veterinarians are asked to both protect and exploit the animals. They work both in the interest of the animals AND of their “employers”.
This tension in veterinary medicine is illustrated by the texts adopted by the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE). OIE is an organization whose functions include the setting of international (non mandatory) standards in animal health. The main function of these international health standards is to facilitate the exploitation of animals through international trade. As OIE website states:
“In the current trend of globalisation, animal health measures have increasing importance to facilitate safe international trade of animals and animal products while avoiding unnecessary impediments to trade. (…) The OIE is the WTO reference organisation for standards relating to animal health and zoonoses. The OIE publishes 2 codes (Terrestrial and Aquatic) and 2 manuals (Terrestrial and Aquatic) as the principle reference for WTO members. ” (Visit website).
The whole logic of international animal health is therefore at the service of international animal trade, i.e. “the employers” to build up on our above-mentioned metaphor.
The OIE today underlines that a lot of animal welfare texts do exist and do protect “the employees”. And it is true. The Terrestrial Animal Health Code (TAHC) and the Guidelines on veterinary legislation include animal welfare provisions. But the protection they provide for animals is very limited in a system where the end goal is the exploitation of the animals.
Let’s take an example. Through its TAHC, the OIE underlines the importance of the five freedoms: “freedom from hunger, thirst and malnutrition; freedom from fear and distress; freedom from physical and thermal discomfort; freedom from pain, injury and disease; and freedom to express normal patterns of behaviour” (TAHC, chapter 7.1.2). The same text underlines the necessity to respect the “innate behaviour” and to ensure that the animal is not suffering from “unpleasant states such a pain, fear and distress” (TAHC, chapter 7.1.1).
But of course when the end goal is commercial exploitation, these statements regarding welfare are very theoretical. Actually, the very same texts justify the imprisonment of livestock (which is probably not an innate behaviour) and its general slaughter (which is, at first glance, an “unpleasant state”).
Veterinarians, particularly those in charge of livestock, are asked to follow opposite goals. Depending on one’s position on the necessity to exploit animals for the survival of the human race, one can find those goals to be legitimate.
Still, one can also think that to make a clear professional distinction between two groups – the one defending animal health and the one in charge of their exploitation – would not only facilitate their daily work. It will automatically create a new social group more prone to defend animal welfare than today’s veterinarians, torn between their ethic as “animal doctors” and as “animal exploiters”.
Vincent Chapaux – March 2015