Born to Die: Animal experimentation and its implications

ttomasic@brynmawr.edu's picture
The ethics of using animals to do research is a hot-button topic that just doesn’t seem to have a right answer (or even a wrong one). Ask two people what they think, and you’re likely to get at least three answers—few are staunchly sure of where they stand on the issue. Animal testing and their use in research is not a new phenomenon; in fact, it can be traced all the way back to the writings of the Greeks in the third and fourth centuries BCE, in the works of Aristotle and Erasistratus (they were among the first to perform vivisections). Galen, a Roman physician, performed vivisections on pigs and goats in the late first and early second centuries CE, and vivisections, and this tradition continued on long into the Renaissance and Enlightenment periods (Claude Bernard, father of physiology, performed vivisections as late as the 1880s).

The use of animals as research materials was thought to be necessary in gaining further insight into the state of man—the animals that were experimented on were seen as perfect models, and a great substitute for using human subjects. While it was impossible to ethically obtain a human body to dissect (or vivisect) and learn from, animals were readily available for scientists and physicians to use in their research. However cruel the methods of research may have seemed, and still may seem today, animals were never purposefully maltreated or made to suffer just for the amusement of others when used in scientific research. Their use has provided the medical community with cures and a greater understanding of how the human body and mind work. With this understanding, doctors are now better able to treat their patients and keep people healthy (vaccines and preventative therapy is usually tested on animals before it is used on humans). But are these advances and other benefits that we have gained from animal research truly worth the price that animals are paying? What about research that is being conducted to gain greater knowledge about a subject, with no immediate foreseeable medical application or benefit to humans? Is there a line to draw and were should it stand?

These questions are ones that have also been around for hundreds of years. Critics of the vivisections protested that the animals used were put into “unnatural” states and suffered cruelly and needlessly. Claude Bernard, the “prince of vivisectors”,’s wife started the founded the first anti-vivisection society in France in 1883. In more recent times, the Thalidomide tragedy in the 1950s—children born to women who were given Thalidomide when pregnant were born with “flippers” instead of normal limbs—prompted people to look at animal testing and see if it was worth the ethical dilemma if the animal models didn’t seem to fit humans well after all (in retrospect, the Thalidomide tragedy was a case of using a drug for a purpose which it was never intended to be used for, essentially negating the argument that animals are not good models for humans. In fact, many animal models fit humans well, and rat brains are often praised for their similarities to those of humans).

Through Animal Welfare legislation and Animal Rights movement, research now has a strict set of standards that must be adhered to before animal testing is allowed. Animal subjects must be well cared for and no unnecessarily cruel experiments are allowed. Repetition of experiments is not allowed if it can be avoided (if the information already exists, researchers must use the information others have found, rather than conduct their own experiment to determine results). Yet even with these regulations, the facts still remain the same: these animals are bred to suffer and die.

The central questions that shaped our presentation were concerned with several issues: 1) why is animal testing conducted in the first place? Why don’t we use humans in research that will ultimately benefit us (and has to be conducted on human subjects anyway?); 2) how similar are research animals to humans? Is the model really a good one, or just a convenient one to use?; 3) if we step away from animal testing, where do we go? What are our alternatives?

These questions brought interesting responses in both the in-class and online discussions that were had afterwards. The moral and ethical dilemma was brought up almost immediately, but there were some interesting takes on the issue. One particularly interesting argument made was that research on these animals was ok because there were specifically bred (genetically and otherwise) for the purpose, and would not have even been alive if they were not needed for the research. This is a problematic argument, as it can be applied to other, more controversial topics—for example, the parents of a child with leukemia decide to have another child specifically designed (ie fertilized in a Petri-dish and specially selected for implantation because it matched its sibling perfectly) to heal their child with leukemia. This child was technically designed and genetically bred for existence, and for one purpose. Does that make it morally and ethically unproblematic? Or the issue of cloning oneself in order to have organs ready for harvesting (a la “The Island”) when needed. Technically, this being was also bred for a purpose. Yet even being specifically engineered does not mean that the beings aren’t the same in every other way (including consciousness of being, to whatever degree that exists within the animal kingdom) as their wild counterparts. As was said in the forums, vegetarians do not distinguish between wild deer and ranch-raised cattle: both are equally reprehensible.

The idea that humans are somehow a “higher species” was also brought up in our discussions. The reason we don’t like to experiment on ourselves and choose to use animals instead (especially when suffering could be involved) is because we are “more complex” or “higher level beings”, or because our cortex is larger than theirs. We have moral dilemmas and societies, ideals that prevent us from using creatures that look like we do in experiments that may be painful or deadly. But are we really that much better than any other animal? And are we really above using ourselves as experimental subjects when we could benefit our own kind? It is true that animals a very good models for the human experience. But they aren’t perfect. Being different, especially if we use the fallacious argument that we are a “higher species”, there are some ways in which we will experience procedures and medicines that animal models cannot predict—the only time we find out is when we move on to the clinical trials, and then blame animal testing if anything goes wrong. Yet if we don’t use animals, and we cannot bring ourselves to use human subjects, what alternatives do we have?

Enter the Blue Brain. This idea is still in its beginning stages, but aims to create a living, working “brain”—in a computer model. The lack of a “living” being should remove all ethical and moral dilemmas. Right? Wrong. This model raises questions about how we determine what is living and what is not, how we determine when consciousness starts and when it ends. The issue of needing prior knowledge to create the program was also brought up in class discussion. We can’t create what we don’t know, and if we already know, why do we need the computer model at all? This technology is years away from becoming a reality, and many remain skeptical about its effectiveness. Some may never be convinced that a computer model, a model humans created, could be as useful as actually using an entire being that all can agree is alive.

As we now stand, there can be no clear answer on animal experimentation. Many opinions, some well informed, some not so well informed, but all valid and important, continue to be formed and continue to shape the decisions individuals and the scientific community makes in their research, animal or otherwise. Since regulations have been put into place, unnecessary experimentation has decreased, but replacing animal experiments entirely is still a long way in the future (if it ever comes to pass).



References:
The Blue Brain Project. <http://bluebrain.epfl.ch/>.
Thalidomide. <http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/druginfo/medmaster/a699032.html>.
Online discussion: http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/node/2218

Comments

Anonymous's picture

1) we are higher species.

1) we are higher species. It's obviously that in nature the higher kill/eat the lower, why is laboratory animal science (LAS) so wrong then? It's nature + it's got even some benefits for the animal itself.

2)the only persons who may tell something about this topic are those ones who are educated in science and understand nature as it is. This means, if you do not know what it is all about, you cannot tell if it's good or bad just by the feeling you've got

3)any person who is against LAS is also getting the advantages of LAS. That's kind of contradictory: vegetarians don't eat meat because harm done to the animals, so contra-LAS persons shouldn't get any medical assistant then...

4)the contra-LAS pesons realized that I know must study for 2 exams laboratory animal science. Practically this means that the time I normally put into my work I now have to put in these exams. Honestly these courses learn me nothing:
- within 3 weeks I won't remember it and I have to search it into books again
- although I had courses I can still do anything with the animals what I want

5)tendency of people is look at the animal as they are humans. Well guess what they aren't !

The message is there's nothing wrong if you work with animals. And starting measures like annoying people with exams is useluss because everything you do, it's shown to you by your supervisor who knows how to handle the animal.

Paul Grobstein's picture

animal research: two levels of anthropocentrism

Its interesting that this argument is frequently cast in anthropocentric terms not only in one sense but in two. The more obvious is the notion that animals can (or cannot) be used to promote human well-being. The perhaps less obvious is the notion that research is being conducted for human well-being. What about the notion that research is being conducted to enhance understanding, and that enhanced understanding is of benefit to living organisms generally? Maybe if we thought of ourselves more as a participant in/contributor to a larger living community, it would provide a different and perhaps more useful perspective on animal research?

Post new comment

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.
randomness