Animal Experimentation

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The use of animals in medical and other research has been a staple of modern scientific progress. In the early twenty-first century, biomedical research in the United States involves the use of several million animal subjects (mostly rodents) each year. With the rise of biotechnology and the techniques of genetic modification, the scientific use of animals will continue in novel forms. There are questions, however, about the reliability of information gained from animal experimentation, and whether it is morally defensible to exploit animals for the sake of scientific knowledge.


While animal experimentation might be thought of as a thoroughly modern practice, humans have been learning from animals since prehistory. Early human hunters' knowledge of the natural world was likely formed by their awareness of the life cycles and migration patterns of prey species. Prehistoric understanding of anatomy and physiology was no doubt the by-product of butchering animals for food. In classical antiquity, scientifically sophisticated knowledge of animal physiology emerged, indicating that the dissection of animals for the purpose of gaining such knowledge had begun. By the Roman era, dissection and vivisection (the dissection of live animals) were established scientific practices. Like much empirical science, these practices were squelched during the Middle Ages, only to reappear during the Renaissance.

By the seventeenth century, when William Harvey (1578–1657) revolutionized physiology, he and his colleagues relied almost exclusively on knowledge gathered from experiments on animals. Throughout the modern era, each subsequent advance in medical knowledge—the germ theory of disease, vaccinations, nutritional chemistry, surgery performed with anesthesia—was made possible by using animal subjects. In the early twenty-first century, virtually all medical therapies—drugs, vaccines, surgical techniques, prosthetics—are developed with the aid of animal subjects, and animal models play a significant role in psychological research. In the United States, the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that all new medicines undergo animal testing to demonstrate safety before they are tested on humans. Other governmental agencies require that the safety and environmental impact of various consumer products be assayed, and, while not a legal requirement, manufacturers frequently rely on animal subjects to do so.

Given the omnipresence of medical and other technological goods to which animal experimentation has contributed, it is questionable whether moral objections to the practice can be consistently maintained in the modern world. For example, the animal rights theorist Tom Regan, in a paper delivered in May 2005, has raised the issue of whether respect for animals requires that one refuse all medical treatments that have been tested on animals, and thus whether animal advocates who continue to avail themselves of modern medicine are guilty of hypocrisy. Nonetheless, modern animal experimentation has been dogged by moral opposition throughout its history. Beginning in 1824, when the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals was formed in England, many organizations rose to resist vivisection and other practices that inflict pain and take animal lives. This type of animal advocacy is continued in the early twenty-first century by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) and other international associations. Founded in 1980, PETA's early efforts in the United States led to the first successful criminal prosecution (later reversed on appeal) of a medical researcher on charges of animal cruelty.

The moral core of the opposition to animal experimentation is often overshadowed by the aggressive actions of extremist groups such as the Animal Liberation Front (formed during the 1970s in England by hunt saboteurs), whose members have been responsible for vandalizing animal research facilities and threatening violence against researchers who use animals. Nevertheless, moral concern for animals has also inspired the body of law under which animal experimentation is currently conducted. In the United States, the legal control of animal experimentation began in 1966 with the Animal Welfare Act. Animal research is regulated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Health and Human Services. These agencies require that research facilities establish institutional animal care and use committees (IACUCs) to evaluate the merits of research involving animals and monitor the treatment of experimental subjects.


While most opposition to animal experimentation is based on moral considerations, some have also raised epistemological objections. Chief among these is the problem of species extrapolation. Because the relationship between an organism's higher functions and their underlying biology is very complex, it is impossible to predict with certainty how an agent will affect humans based on experiments done with other species. Detractors need only point to headlines from the early 2000s for examples of medicines that fared well during animal studies, but then produced problematic results when used widely on human patients. Proponents of animal testing acknowledge that identifying the animal species whose biology is most appropriate to a specific experiment is a daunting task, but it is not impossible. The number of instances in which failed species extrapolation led to significant harm to human patients is small when compared to the successes, proving that many biological analogies between humans and animals are sound.

This defense of the epistemological foundations of animal research has nevertheless provided the theoretical foundation for much of its moral criticism: If animals are sufficiently similar to humans to justify experimenting on them, it is likely that they also possess a degree of morally relevant attributes sufficient to render the experiments problematic. The point is especially significant for research involving primates. Opponents argue that if primates or other animals possess pain perception, emotional complexity, intelligence, or subjectivity comparable to that of humans, then at a minimum researchers are morally obligated to limit the impact their experiments have on animal subjects. Those who advocate the strong animal rights position argue for the abolition of animal research, even when the pains experienced by the subjects might reasonably be outweighed by gains in human well-being. Others stop short of rejecting all animal experiments, but rather draw attention to research that is redundant, poorly designed, or of dubious merit, or that inflicts a great deal of suffering.

In addition to the treatment that individual animals receive during the course of research, some have raised concerns about the commodification of life-forms that the acquisition of experimental subjects entails. Almost all laboratory animals are now "purpose bred" to make them compliant with the experimental conditions to which they will be subjected, and to ensure consistent data; thus, these living beings are essentially technological products, brought into existence for the purpose of their scientific use. The point is inarguable in the case of experimental subjects produced by means of genetic modification. In the most famous example, researchers at Harvard University developed through genetic modification a breed of mouse (dubbed the "OncoMouseä") with a disposition to develop cancer. Not only did the case raise the question of whether it is ethical to intentionally bring such genetically defective beings into existence, fundamental moral and legal issues were also raised by the researchers' efforts to patent the mice produced through their technique.

While the traditional defense against moral objections to animal research was to deny that animals possess the capacity for morally relevant experiences, that is a position seldom heard anymore. Indeed, many researchers speak in solemn terms about the sacrifices their animal subjects are forced to make; some Western research facilities have adopted a custom developed by Japanese scientists, who hold memorial observances for the animals they have used. Others admit to struggling with their natural inclination to empathize with the creatures they use (a fact that makes distancing techniques—such as limiting personal contact with animal subjects and assigning them numbers rather than names—part of standard laboratory practice). Nonetheless, some proponents make the argument that it is simply a misnomer to apply humankind's strongest moral categories (such as rights) to animals, which lack the capacities of rational self-awareness and moral autonomy that make human life so valuable. This point is buttressed by the clear benefits animal experimentation has brought: It is difficult to appreciate how much progress has been made in the treatment of human disease and the alleviation of human suffering, and how necessary the use of animals has been to this rate of progress. While opponents cite the availability of alternatives to animal research—such as tissue tests, computer models, epidemiological studies, and research involving human volunteers—proponents respond that they are not viable for all research situations, and that relying on them might lead to significant delays in gaining valuable medical knowledge. Given the health crises humankind still faces and the potentially great benefits to human well-being, many proponents argue that animal experimentation is not only defensible, but morally obligatory.

Despite the often heated controversy, a consensus ethic for animal research (the 3Rs approach) is beginning to emerge, with support among both animal advocates and proponents of scientific progress. It holds that researchers have a duty to refine experiments that use animals to ensure that the impact on them is proportionate to the potential benefits of the research; to reduce the number of animals sacrificed to the minimum that is statistically necessary to obtain the desired data; and, when possible, to replace research that uses mammals with nonmammalian or nonanimal alternatives.


SEE ALSO Animal Rights;Animal Welfare.


Haraway, Donna J. (1997). Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium.FemaleManÓMeets_OncoMouseä. New York: Routledge. Explores the broad ramifications of the melding of technology and science embodied in the genetically modified laboratory animal.

LaFollette, Hugh, and Niall Shanks. (1996). Brute Science: Dilemmas of Animal Experimentation. London: Routledge. An analysis of the epistemological difficulties of animal experimentation, and their link to the moral case against using animals.

Langley, Gill, ed. (1989). Animal Experimentation: The Consensus Changes. New York: Chapman and Hall. Collection of essays by scientists and philosophers exploring the epistemological and moral objections to animal experimentation.

Paul, Elizabeth S. (1995). "Us and Them: Scientists' and Animal Rights Campaigners' Views of the Animal Experimentation Debate." Society and Animals: Journal of Human–Animal Studies 3(1): 1–21. An analysis of the human psychology of animal experimentation, involving a survey of attitudes on the part of both animal rights advocates and researchers who experiment on animals.

Paul, Ellen Frankel, and Jeffrey Paul. (2001). Why Animal Experimentation Matters: The Use of Animals in Medical Research. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction Publishers. Collection of essays by biomedical researchers, social scientists, and philosophers responding to the strong animal rights objection to animal experimentation.

Regan, Tom. (2004). The Case for Animal Rights, 2nd edition. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press. The clearest articulation of the strong animal rights position.