The Ethics of Animal Experimentation in Biomedical Research
The importance of animal research in medical and scientific advancement is incontestable. Throughout the past century into the future, animal research has been and will continue to be instrumental in achieving a growth of knowledge in the nature, prevention and treatment of diseases. All over the world, populations are being saved from possible elimination by a host of extremely virulent diseases whose medications could not have been found without the benefit of animal science. However, the use of animals in scientific and medical research has been a subject of great controversy. Animal rights activists and extremists, anti-vivisectionist groups and a host of other stakeholders have frequently posited the belief that animal experimentation in biomedical research is inhumane, cruel and unnecessary irrespective of its benefit or purpose to humanity. For this reason they call for a total abolition of animal research regardless of the consequences on human health or any other worthy purpose (Festing & Wilkinson 526).
On the other hand are scientists who have adopted ethical, legal and practical standards of animal use in biomedical research (Festing & Wilkinson 527). These standards are based on the understanding that animals should be protected from inhumane treatment, some researchers and research institutions have adopted a set of human endpoints that are permissible in biomedical research and animal experimentation. The reasons behind the implementation of the humane endpoints include the cessation of animal use in research when the expected or desired results of the specific test are no longer valid; in cases where there is an absence of proportionality between the degree of suffering and the scientific benefit; when the extent of the suffering has arguably exceeded the humane limit of animal suffering irrespective of the expected hypothetical benefits; and finally when the generally accepted surrogate endpoints fail to apply with regard to the experiment and animal suffering(Morton 5; Armstrong & Botzler 286; Olfert 12).
In addition to these, several institutions have also accepted and put into practice conditions that can briefly be surmised as, “all animals must receive every consideration for their bodily comfort; they shall be kindly treated, properly fed, and their surroundings kept in a sanitary condition”(Zola 79). In analyzing the essentiality of animal use in biomedical research, the terms basic and applied research must be taken into perspective. Basic research can simply be referred to as experiments shedding light while applied research are experiments yielding fruits. Even though the two definitions are sometimes not arguably mutually exclusive, they capture the general parlance of the two technical terms: basic and applied research.
The decision to use animals in research primarily rests on the institutions ability to differentiate between applied and basic research. In distinguishing the two, a question is always asked about the potential benefits of the research in connection with the ethical, legal and practical perspectives of animal use. The potential benefits can either be analyzed explicitly or implicitly (Zola 81). Such an analysis is however dismissed by animal rights activists as being unnecessary on the understanding that research using animal models is entirely worthless. In practice, while fundamental research may be distinct, the need for further biological knowledge cannot always be eliminated because through further probes, new knowledge can be generated which may not have any practical purpose initially but which may prove to be extremely important in the future; hence the two remain inextricably linked.
Thus, animal experimentation in biomedical research has consistently been justified by the position that the extent of harm inflicted on the animals is outweighed by the benefits in scientific knowledge and the subsequent application of such knowledge in practical purposes such as in the manufacture of therapeutics (WHO 218). This defense of animal experimentation is generally accepted in the scientific community but acceptance has not been that high in both the general public domain and as well as among the animal activism community. It is true that animal research has improved on disease causing mechanisms and treatment modalities. However, in some situations, there exist equally productive alternatives. For instance, computer simulation and tissue culture are equally productive but scientists argue that they cannot be used to defend the abolition of animal research because they fail to provide a superior model for the behavioral and the physiological environment that usually surrounds the study of live animals.
Animal research has also been criticized for its inability to provide the best models for human physiology, biology and psychology. This is primarily attributable to the differences between the brain cortical organization that is variable between species. With respect to research using primates, the absence of certain characteristics that are definitive to man, implies that such research designs that desire to explore the closeness between primates and research are unnecessary (WHO 219).
Those who oppose animal experimentation also posit that the practical process of the research leads to suffering and that such suffering is inhumane. Given that causing animal suffering is avoidable, it is unethical for science to pursue an objective that is inhumane and unnecessary. On the contrary, scientific findings have demonstrated that even husbandry negatively affects the animal but it is rarely pointed out because animal husbandry is culturally and socially accepted. Use of animals for food equally infringes on the same values that those who oppose animal experimentation point out.
Based on a set of classified endpoints, the reduction of animals used in biomedical research is a strong consideration (Morton 7). However, given that many of the world’s cultures place more emphasis on the method of killing an animal rather than the numbers killed, determining the value of an animal’s life degenerates into a slippery slope argument. The practical aspects of considering the value of an animal’s life and henceforth suffering is therefore entirely dependent on the refining of animal experiments with regard to the experiences of pain, discomfort, mental distress or lasting harm(Morton 8). These considerations are based on the understanding that suffering free animals are necessary for the production of high specificity and quality of the objectives in question. On the basis of proportionality, the benefits should far outweigh the degrees of suffering involved but only if such suffering is acceptable under the regulatory standards. In cases where millions of animals are continually killed without any apparent or significant benefit, such practices are unethical and morally wrong (Yarri 197; Motloch 12).
The moral status of animals is also challenged by philosophical debates that view animals as biological machines that can be utilized by humans for their own benefit. Such philosophical underpinnings points to varying degrees of consciousness and sentience which are definitive of the moral basis through which moral interests can be ascribed to animals. But even in such philosophical underpinnings of ascribing moral interests, methods employed in the capture, breeding, confinement and killing of the animals are classified in terms of degrees. These classifications attempt to avoid the infliction of pain to animals as much as possible. On the basis of speciesism, it is held that just as racism and sexism are wrong, so is the mistreatment of animals (Murphy 251).
In other instances, animals have been vivisected, starved, burned, deprived of stimulation and eventually killed using painful methods in the name of biomedical science. It is such cases that have heightened the debates about the immorality of animal experimentation. This form of advocacy has increased the level of measures taken by research institutions in the care and use of animals (Murphy 252; Tristam 146).
In conclusion, it is arguable that the absence of scientific knowledge due to the cessation of animal research is in itself an unethical situation. Animal experimentation is crucial for the increasing ability of scientific and medical biomedical research to combat the range of diseases currently diagnosable and even those that may develop in the future due to mechanisms such as mutation. Alternatively, it is also clear as a minimum moral standard, all animals must be protected based on a standard of beneficence, their capacity to thrive in certain laboratory environments as well as their capacity to feel pain. Thus, future challenges medicine or the paucity of scientific knowledge can only be met when animal experimentations are carried out in congruence to the highest possible levels of ethical, legal and practical standards.
Armstrong, Susan Jean., ; Botzler, Richard George. The animal ethics reader. Routledge, 2003; 286-290.
Festing, Simon., ; Wilkinson, Robin. The ethics of animal research. Talking Point on the use of animals in scientific research. EMBO reports 8,(6), 526-530. 2007
Morton, David B. Humane endpoints in animal experimentation for biomedical research: ethical, legal and practical aspects. Humane endpoints in animal experiments for biomedical research, 5-13. http://www.lal.org.uk/pdffiles/MORTON.PDF
Motloch, Lucie. Research Ethics in Human and Animal Experimentation. EUROPEANRADIOLOGY. European Society of Radiology. 12-13.
Murphy, Timothy F. Case Studies in Biomedical Research. MIT Press, 2004; 250-253
Olfert, Ernest D. Ethics of Animal Models of Neurological Diseases. Animal Models of Neurological Disease, I: Neurodegenerative Diseases. Neuromethods; 21: 1-28. 1992.
Tristam, Engelhardt H. The Foundations of Bioethics. 2nd Edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996; 145-146.
WHO. Ethics of animal experimentation in neuroscience research. Neuroscience of psychoactive substance use and dependence. World Health Organization. 2004; 217-220
Yarri, Donna. The ethics of animal experimentation: a critical analysis and constructive Christian proposal. Oxford University Press US, 2005; 197
Zola, Stuart. Basic Research, Applied Research, Animal Ethics and an Animal Model of Human Amnesia. In, Why animal experimentation matters: the use of animals in medical research. Ellen Frankel Paul., Jeffrey Paul. Transaction Publishers, 2001; 79-87