Animal testing has been around since at least 500 BC and in the last 100 years most medical breakthroughs regarding treatments and life-saving cures to ailments have resulted from research using animals, according to the California Biomedical Research Association.
The World Medical Association Declaration of Helsinki, states it’s unethical to test on human volunteers unnecessarily before first testing on animals.
The American Veterinary Medical Association (AVMA) supports animal testing as it also helps the animals themselves, creating their vaccines for many of their own issues, including saving endangered species from extinction. The animals being tested, such as chimpanzees and mice, share 98-99% genetic DNA, biological organs and central nervous systems to humans, and are susceptible to similar illnesses.
The Federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA) has been used in effect since 1966, in combination with local and state laws, but doesn’t include reptiles, most fish, avian or vermin such as rats and mice that are bred for research, which is about 95% of animals used for testing. The amount of animals truly used in research, around 26 million, are far less than Americans consume for food, being 9 billion domestic fowls and 150 million bovine. Notice, however, the animals used in testing, rodents, birds and fish, aren’t protected by the AWA. Interesting, no?
In the scientific case studies toward medical research and disease prevention, such as polio, rabies, brain cancer, the animals are not being treated inhumanely, as information from the Humane Society and PETA states. Any animal that is under duress would provide unreliable results thus ruining the overall research, as stated in Nature Genetics.
However, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) gives details of the harsh chemical research for the cosmetics used by vain consumers. Understand that bug repellent should undergo a toxicological test to protect humans from malaria carried by mosquitoes, while the American woman uses 12 beauty products a day that are also tested on animals, which are often put through traumatizing events and lethal doses of toxic chemicals.
Many political and scientific figures state that animals don’t have rights, as they do not have the capability nor cognitive awareness to make moral judgments. However, Bolivia’s new protection for their social and economical respect for nature makes them the first country to give legal rights to nature in the hopes to improve the quality of life to the Bolivian people. So if not nature, why not animals?
A difficult issueIn 1997 Dr Jay Vacanti and his team grew an ear on the back of a mouse
Animal experiments are widely used to develop new medicines and to test the safety of other products.
Many of these experiments cause pain to the animals involved or reduce their quality of life in other ways.
If it is morally wrong to cause animals to suffer then experimenting on animals produces serious moral problems.
Animal experimenters are very aware of this ethical problem and acknowledge that experiments should be made as humane as possible.
They also agree that it's wrong to use animals if alternative testing methods would produce equally valid results.
Two positions on animal experiments
- In favour of animal experiments:
- Experimenting on animals is acceptable if (and only if):
- suffering is minimised in all experiments
- human benefits are gained which could not be obtained by using other methods
- Against animal experiments:
- Experimenting on animals is always unacceptable because:
- it causes suffering to animals
- the benefits to human beings are not proven
- any benefits to human beings that animal testing does provide could be produced in other ways
Harm versus benefit
The case for animal experiments is that they will produce such great benefits for humanity that it is morally acceptable to harm a few animals.
The equivalent case against is that the level of suffering and the number of animals involved are both so high that the benefits to humanity don't provide moral justification.
The three Rs
The three Rs are a set of principles that scientists are encouraged to follow in order to reduce the impact of research on animals.
The three Rs are: Reduction, Refinement, Replacement.
- Reducing the number of animals used in experiments by:
- Improving experimental techniques
- Improving techniques of data analysis
- Sharing information with other researchers
- Refining the experiment or the way the animals are cared for so as to reduce their suffering by:
- Using less invasive techniques
- Better medical care
- Better living conditions
- Replacing experiments on animals with alternative techniques such as:
- Experimenting on cell cultures instead of whole animals
- Using computer models
- Studying human volunteers
- Using epidemiological studies
Are animal experiments useful?
Are animal experiments useful?
Animal experiments only benefit human beings if their results are valid and can be applied to human beings.
Not all scientists are convinced that these tests are valid and useful.
The moral status of the experimenters
Animal rights extremists often portray those who experiment on animals as being so cruel as to have forfeited any own moral standing.
But the argument is about whether the experiments are morally right or wrong. The general moral character of the experimenter is irrelevant.
What is relevant is the ethical approach of the experimenter to each experiment. John P Gluck has suggested that this is often lacking:
Gluck offers this advice for people who may need to experiment on animals:
Animal experiments and animal rights
The issue of animal experiments is straightforward if we accept that animals have rights: if an experiment violates the rights of an animal, then it is morally wrong, because it is wrong to violate rights.
The possible benefits to humanity of performing the experiment are completely irrelevant to the morality of the case, because rights should never be violated (except in obvious cases like self-defence).
And as one philosopher has written, if this means that there are some things that humanity will never be able to learn, so be it.
This bleak result of deciding the morality of experimenting on animals on the basis of rights is probably why people always justify animal experiments on consequentialist grounds; by showing that the benefits to humanity justify the suffering of the animals involved.
Justifying animal experiments
Those in favour of animal experiments say that the good done to human beings outweighs the harm done to animals.
This is a consequentialist argument, because it looks at the consequences of the actions under consideration.
It can't be used to defend all forms of experimentation since there are some forms of suffering that are probably impossible to justify even if the benefits are exceptionally valuable to humanity.
Animal experiments and ethical arithmetic
The consequentialist justification of animal experimentation can be demonstrated by comparing the moral consequences of doing or not doing an experiment.
This process can't be used in a mathematical way to help people decide ethical questions in practice, but it does demonstrate the issues very clearly.
The basic arithmetic
If performing an experiment would cause more harm than not performing it, then it is ethically wrong to perform that experiment.
The harm that will result from not doing the experiment is the result of multiplying three things together:
- the moral value of a human being
- the number of human beings who would have benefited
- the value of the benefit that each human being won't get
The harm that the experiment will cause is the result of multiplying together:
- the moral value of an experimental animal
- the number of animals suffering in the experiment
- the negative value of the harm done to each animal
But it isn't that simple because:
- it's virtually impossible to assign a moral value to a being
- it's virtually impossible to assign a value to the harm done to each individual
- the harm that will be done by the experiment is known beforehand, but the benefit is unknown
- the harm done by the experiment is caused by an action, while the harm resulting from not doing it is caused by an omission
Certain versus potential harm
In the theoretical sum above, the harm the experiment will do to animals is weighed against the harm done to humans by not doing the experiment.
But these are two conceptually different things.
- The harm that will be done to the animals is certain to happen if the experiment is carried out
- The harm done to human beings by not doing the experiment is unknown because no-one knows how likely the experiment is to succeed or what benefits it might produce if it did succeed
So the equation is completely useless as a way of deciding whether it is ethically acceptable to perform an experiment, because until the experiment is carried out, no-one can know the value of the benefit that it produces.
And there's another factor missing from the equation, which is discussed in the next section.
Acts and omissions
The equation doesn't deal with the moral difference between acts and omissions.
Most ethicists think that we have a greater moral responsibility for the things we do than for the things we fail to do; i.e. that it is morally worse to do harm by doing something than to do harm by not doing something.
For example: we think that the person who deliberately drowns a child has done something much more wrong than the person who refuses to wade into a shallow pool to rescue a drowning child.
In the animal experiment context, if the experiment takes place, the experimenter will carry out actions that harm the animals involved.
If the experiment does not take place the experimenter will not do anything. This may cause harm to human beings because they won't benefit from a cure for their disease because the cure won't be developed.
So the acts and omissions argument could lead us to say that
- it is morally worse for the experimenter to harm the animals by experimenting on them
- than it is to (potentially) harm some human beings by not doing an experiment that might find a cure for their disease.
And so if we want to continue with the arithmetic that we started in the section above, we need to put an additional, and different, factor on each side of the equation to deal with the different moral values of acts and omissions.