I am a huge advocate for animal rights and welfare coming first, regardless of the reason the experimentation is taking place. I argue that with certain advancements, animal testing is simply outdated and no longer necessary. However, I do sympathise with anyone who has to choose between a loved one’s life and animal testing taking place.
Without a doubt, many major advancements have been made scientifically as a direct result of animal experimentation: Antidepressants; MRI scans; and space travel. No doubt, these are huge accomplishments. Indeed, the world would be a very different place if we as human animals, hadn’t abused animals. However, there are many different alternatives to non-human animal testing which is expensive, cruel and often inapplicable to human animals. These alternatives to animal testing include sophisticated tests using human cells and tissues (Vitro method), advanced computer-modelling techniques (often referred to as in silico models), and studies with human volunteers. These and other non-animal methods are not hindered by species differences that make applying non-human animal test results to human animals difficult or impossible, and they usually take less time and money to complete.
Returning to the invalidity of animal testing; Thalidomide is a sedative drug introduced to the European market after claims of extensive testing on rodent embryos to ensure its safety. According to Greek, Shanks, and Rice, testing on pregnant non-human animals for teratogens was a common practice at the time. However, in human animals, Thalidomide interfered with embryonic and fetal development in ways not observed in rodent tests. In the process of testing this drug that for all intents and purposes did not work, many pregnant non-human animals suffered greatly and needlessly.
Many advocates for non-human animal testing suggest that it is simply a necessary evil. While I do appreciate the many advancements this form of experimentation has given, I question the validity of this argument – wasn’t there a time where this very excuse was used to justify slavery of people of colour? And if it wasn’t that excuse, it was the excuse of ‘this is the way it has always been done’. Tradition doesn’t justify the abuse of non-human animals. Not long ago, tradition dictated that a man could beat his wife as men were seen as inferior to women, however to nearly everyone, this principle would seem disgusting now.
The best defence of animal research is that it promotes the welfare of humanity. But this very defence would seem to present a moral paradox. For presumably other animals are used in this work because of their similarities to human beings: how else to obtain results that are relevant to our primary concern with human health? On the other hand, this use of animals fails to accord them any moral status even approaching our own. But if other animals are so similar to us, then why don’t they deserve similar moral consideration?
Many people in favour of the non-human animal testing claim that stories of cruelty are old and out of date and that safeguards such as the Animal Welfare Act are in place to ensure that the animals used in testing are well treated. At first glance, the Animal Welfare Act looks as though it would provide good protection in that it sets out minimum standards of accommodation and access to water as well as access to pain relief. Sadly, the Animal Welfare Act is cold comfort; of the 26 million animals used for testing in the US every year, only 5% are covered by the terms of the Animal Welfare Act. Animals that are not covered include birds, fish and rodents.
Many argue that animals do not have rights as they cannot take on the responsibilities a human can, but, in the words of philosophy Jeremy Bentham “The question is not can they reason? Nor, can they talk? But can they suffer?” The line of reasoning in favour of granting animals equal rights to human beings emphasises the fact that scientists have found traits in non-human animals we normally associate with human animals. However, regardless of whether or not a non-human animal can reason or communicate, we should still not abuse them. In the same way, as if a person is severely disabled to the point they can’t reason or communicate, they still deserve to be treated as a living thing.
As we have seen (above) animal tests are not a reliable indicator that drugs will be effective on humans. The problems work both ways; just as some drugs work in animals but fail to live up to expectations in clinical trials. Therefore, some drugs that work in humans have a little discernible effect on animals or even appear dangerous leading to nasty side effects in the animal hosts that might not transfer to their human equivalents. Aspirin, a wonder drug that not only treats pain in humans but may prove to be beneficial to those suffering from stroke and heart attack is dangerous to some animals. However, if penicillin were to have been tested on guinea pigs, it would have been written off as toxic. One of the drugs used to treat organ transplant patients almost did not make it to clinical trial because it did not do well during animal testing.
I have explored many alternatives to non-human animal experimentation but there is one I am opposed to; testing on prisoners. Regardless of my personal opinion that it is morally despicable to hurt another living thing, it simply wouldn’t be reliable. When scientists want to conduct an experiment to test a theory, they try and limit all other variables. So, if researchers want to understand if medical intervention is having a positive effect, they need to make sure that food, temperature, liquid intake, prior health etc, are as similar as possible. This can be done in animals, where such variables have been controlled and recorded; often since the animals’ birth. From this, the researcher can see the benefits (if any) of the intervention, and begin to make conclusions knowing that the only thing that differed between the control group and the main group was the intervention. The same is not possible with prisoners, whose medical history will be more limited. The individual could have picked up natural immunities to all manner of diseases, creating confounding variables in the research. Many of those in prison have past problems with drugs or alcohol, or other health-related issues which may interfere with the experiments. Furthermore, this sets a very worrying precedent – if it becomes acceptable to test on people for certain crimes, what if that line is redrawn? What if we start testing on petty criminals? Or those awaiting trial?
While it is easy enough to impose our own needs and in some cases desires (like in the case of testing cosmetics) on non-human animals. Personally, I feel it is nothing short of speciesist that we seem to accept non-human animal testing as a part of life and scientific advancement, whereas if one were to test on human animals, as the Nazis did in death camps (which, as horrifying as it was, did make huge advancements in our understanding of genetics), we as a civilisation would find it horrific. I disagree with speciesism for several reasons: The biological species boundary is arbitrary. Why pick out “species” from the list of biological categories to which I belong? We belong to the kingdom of animals, the family of great apes, the genus Homo, the species Homo sapiens, the subspecies Homo sapiens and the ethnic group of whites. There are different genetic affinities. It is arbitrary to pick out the species. Why adding this arbitrariness in our ethics? The biological definition of species is very complicated and too artificial and farfetched to be used in a moral system. One of the many definitions of species refers to the possibility of interbreeding and getting fertile offspring. But why should this possibility be relevant? It is too far-fetched to say that a being has moral status if its parents could have gotten fertile offspring with some other morally relevant beings. It is unfair that an individual gets rights because its parents can do something with others. It is unjust to take a principle where non-human animals simply have bad luck having the wrong parents.
Throughout history, excuses have been made for the suffering of others – human and non-human animals – at the hands of us, the dominant race. To me, any suffering of a non-human animal (or human-animal) caused deliberately by another is abhorrent and has no place in a moral, civilised society. It is for this reason that I am completely opposed to the institution of animal experimentation, regardless of the reasoning behind it.