Animal rights activists cannot be faulted because of their empathy and compassion for animals. Certainly, creatures used in research or classrooms must be treated kindly and not subjected to unnecessary pain or cruelty. But trying to outlaw the use of any animals whatsoever in medical research is going much too far.

The American Medical Association, weary of animal rights critics, this week launched the first in a series of counterattacks against animal rights groups, claiming at a news conference that such groups are undermining science education.The animal rights activists are not all of one kind. Some want merely to reduce the use of animals and make sure research conditions meet certain standards of animal care. Others want to eliminate any killing of animals, even for food. Some radicals go so far as to destroy medical laboratories, about 90 in the past decade.

It should seem obvious that use of animals in medical research and teaching is necessary at some point. While an argument can be made against having high school students dissect animals in lab class, that objection cannot be carried all the way into medical school.

Use of computers and plastic models, while extremely helpful, have their limits. Would-be surgeons must do dissections; their very first operation on a live body cannot be a human patient. Even experienced surgeons must perfect new surgical techniques on animals before trying out experimental procedures on human beings.

Computer analysis cannot always take the place of drug tests and other research involving animals, even if the animals are only laboratory rats. Rodents make up 85 percent of the 12-15 million animals used for research each year.

Researchers generally are careful in their use of animals, although there may be unhappy exceptions. But that is no reason to outlaw the use of animals in medical studies altogether.

The AMA news conference in Atlanta also criticized animal rights organizations on another front - for pushing vegetarianism as an alternative to using animals for food.

That latter issue is somewhat beside the point and a little hard to understand since vegetarianism is healthy - healthier than eating a lot of meat. Doctors know that already. If people want to avoid meat, they should be able to do so without criticism. The same goes for meat-eaters.

The AMA, in defending the legitimate use of animals in medical research, should be careful not to fall into the same trap of extremism, emotionalism and exaggeration that tarnishes the credibility of some animal rights advocates.