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Animal Research, Benefits and Ethics
Is the human race ready to sacrifice lives in order to protect the welfare of animals? Is the human race ready to justify trading human lives for animal lives? Even though we should make every effort ensure that animals are not wantonly harmed in research, animals certainly do not have the same rights as humans do. Many animal rights activists condemn research on animals, citing that it is inhumane. But prohibiting research on animals would be even more inhumane. Research on animals has eradicated many diseases and saved the lives of millions, and discontinuing doing so will generate disastrous consequences. Because of extremely advantageous health advancements that have benefited, and will continue to benefit, the lives of human beings, research on animals should continue to be allowed.
In 1877, the American Human Society was founded in order to improve the lives of human beings, but it expanded to include advocating for humane treatment of animals (Yount 42). Animal rights movement gained momentum during the 1960s, when a widespread mistreatment of animals in labs was uncovered (Yount 47). In response to wide public discontent, Congress passed the first animal welfare law – the Laboratory Animal Welfare Act in 1966 (Yount 42). The act itself did little to help the animals that were being mistreated in labs, but it did establish a frontier for the animal rights movement. The act had little practical applications, because it did not cover rats, mice, and birds, which consisted of 85-95 % of all animals being tested in research (Yount 45). Currently, there are two movements advocating for rights of animals: the traditional interest group and the new interest group (Silberman 161). The traditional interest group is concerned with the welfare of the animals, although it does not entirely condemn animal testing. It stresses and urges the use of alternatives to animal research. The new interest group, however, is more adamant in its campaign for animal rights. It believes that animals have the same rights as humans do. Presently around 17-70 million (figures are difficult to estimate) animals are being tested in the United States annually (Masters n.pag.), and the new interest group wishes to reduce that number to zero (Silberman 142). The issue of animal research has become more pressing in the recent years due to the lobbying efforts of these new interest groups.
When examining the ethics of researching on animals, a clear line must be drawn between the interests of animals and the interests of human beings. Before even discussing the benefits of researching on animals, it is imperative to first establish a fundamental ethical question: should that which benefits us be obtained without regard to other species' welfare? It is tempting to think of "animal testing" as cruel and barbarous; the very nature of testing harmful chemicals on animals suggests that researchers are intentionally causing harm to animals. But at the same time, the enormous benefits from researching on animals cannot be denied and must be brought into examination. Furthermore, human beings have natural predilections toward the protection of its own members and will, like any other species, put the interest of its own species in front of the interest of any others. Obvious questions arise from this complexity: should we sacrifice the welfare of animals in order to gain medical advancements for our own good? Do animals have rights? Do we have the right, as moral agents, to even decide the fate of animals? And if not, should we protect the rights of animals at the price of allowing members of our own species to be harmed? Not surprisingly, this is a question with no evident answer. But, by making a simple analogy, some luminosity can be shed on the issue.
Consider the ordinary act of ordering a hamburger from a restaurant. The order is placed; the food is served; and the food is consumed. No controversies are raised. However, the unsuspecting consumer has just unintentionally committed a horrible "crime." The hamburger is undoubtedly ripped from the flesh of a cow that was grown specifically to be eaten. The farmer feeds the cow for some years, injects it with steroids to beef it up (no pun intended), and then brings it to the slaughterhouse and whacks off its head and cuts it into meat. The meat is then packaged and transported to restaurants, made into a juicy hamburger, and finally shoved into the mouth of the unwary consumer. The consumer has just unconsciously put the welfare of himself ahead of the animal's, and there is little doubt that many of us would do exactly the same. The cow that is slaughtered for the hamburger does not harm humans; it does not provoke attack, nor does it present any danger to any human being. The only thing the cow is doing "wrong" is having a lot of meat. The cow was just innocently minding its own business before it is forced into death. But unfortunately for the cow, we need its meat for the nutrient, so therefore we take it, and most people would not object to that. The act of murdering the cow for its meat is no different from researching on animals. We need the bodies of animals in order to discover the potency of certain viruses, or the effectiveness of a newly developed vaccine, or the potential health risks in a newly developed medicine. It may be difficult, or even painful for some, to admit that if we were to impose the same standards on animal research as we do on killing animals for their meat, then there is absolutely nothing wrong with researching on animals for human benefits. Both activities involve sacrificing animal welfare and rights for our own necessary benefits. Fascinatingly, those who adamantly oppose researching on animals on the moral ground that we should not intentionally kill animals for our own good would not think twice about taking a trip to a restaurant and enjoying a beefy hamburger. Coming back to the original question: should we sacrifice the welfare of animals for our own medical advancements? That question has been decided a long time ago by humanity when it first started hunting and eating animals tens of thousands of years ago.
The next issue is determining whether animals have the right to be not harmed. It is extremely important for us to consider this issue because we have previously been examining the ethic of killing animals for our own gain based on the assumption that animals have no rights. Humanity has already accepted the fact of killing animals for our own gain, but it has largely assumed that animals have no rights; therefore it is okay for us to take advantage of them. This brings up another difficult issue: if animals indeed have rights, then we must do everything in our ability in order to protect it, even if this means our inconvenience. Consider this: if I borrow $20 from you, then it is assumed that you have a right to get this money back, even if this right may poses a certain "inconvenience" to me, the borrower. Because you have a right to get this money back, I have an unfailing obligation to ascertain that this right is fulfilled; that is, return this money to you, the original owner. It doesn't matter if I am destitute and desperately need the money; nor does it matter if you are unbelievably rich and have no use for the money. You have a certain right to get that money back, therefore I must do everything I can to fulfill that obligation to you. In similar case, it is important that we consider the animal rights issue, because if animals have rights, then we have obligations to fulfill that right, even if this means allowing humans to indirectly come to harm. We may have a heavy interest in researching on animals to achieve medical advancements, but we do not have a right to perform the research on the animals - if they do indeed have rights. However, we must be very clear about the distinction and connection between obligation and right. Yes, we do owe animals certain obligations, but this certainly does not imply that animals have a right in this issue. All rights entitle obligations, but not all obligations indicate the presence of rights. You have a right to receive your money back; therefore I have an obligation to fulfill. But the obligations that we owe to animals do not indicate the presence of their right. This is an important issue to consider because, even though animals do not have rights, we still cannot treat them cruelly and irresponsibly. A cow is not a tree. It feels. And we must fulfill our obligation to not torture it or cause it unnecessary pain, even though the concept of a right can never be entitled to a cow (Cohen 94). So do animals have rights? No, they do not. But that doesn't mean we can treat them irresponsibly.
Some opponents reject research on animals, citing that alternatives should be found to using animals (Miller 19). But it is impossible to determine the potency of a chemical based solely on its molecular structure. The best way is just to test it (Ojeda 84). In University of Pennsylvania, a scientist conducted a supposedly safe gene therapy trial on a coworker and that eventually resulted in his death. The gene therapy trial was considered by the scientists to be absolutely safe, and so they neglected testing the chemical firstly in animals. (Masters n.pag.). The unfortunate accident clearly demonstrates the need for testing on animals before testing on humans. Another use of animals may be in commercial settings. For example, newly developed shampoos are first tested on rabbit eyes to test if it poses any harm to human eyes (Watson 17). Obviously, no consumer would ever want to go blind because of untested shampoo, even though many oppose to testing it on animals first, condemning it as inhumane and unethical. But there is no practical alternative to test if a product is safe for human usage. Some may argue that there are companies out there that advertise the non-usage of animal testing on their shampoos. This supposed claim is technically true, but what the manufacturer fails to mention is that the chemicals used in that product have already been tested by another company or for another product. Therefore a claim can be safely made that no animals have been being tested on for that specific product. If a company can really create a shampoo product that does not involve testing on animals, it would definitely be a major breakthrough; although it is not promising given our current technology and understanding of human body's behavior to certain chemicals. For now, there is no alternative to testing commercial products on animals (Miller 17), unless of course one wishes to become blind or have smelly hair forever.
On a more serious note, research on animals has cured many diseases and prevented many others. Research will continue to find cures for currently incurable disease, such as AIDS, Alzheimer's, and heart diseases (Ojeda 37). In order to cure these diseases, scientists must first be able to identify how exactly the disease began, how does the disease spread, and what kind of chemicals can alter the path of the disease. These are not easily answered questions, and that's were testing on animals comes into play. Many vertebrate animals have very similar anatomy and similar diseases to humans (Watson 19); many chemicals that may potentially be helpful in treating diseases are first tested in animals (Watson 19). For example, if a certain newly produced chemical were believed to have beneficial effects in treating a certain disease, how would one ensure that it works and does not have deadly side effects? Should we just randomly injects the chemical into volunteers and hope for the best? Absolutely not. A more practical approach would be to test the product first in animals and see the responses from animals' bodies. If the animals are safe after being injected with the chemicals and show positive signs of treatment for that disease, then the scientist might move to conclude that a human test may soon be possible. Animal rights activists are currently lobbying for passage of laws that would limit such research, which may severely hamper our ability to understand complex diseases. A ban or a severe limit on animal research would have enormous impacts. For one, banning animal research would leave the whole human race vulnerable to the Ebola virus because we will no longer be able to test drugs on animals to see the drugs' potency (O'Neill 43). The benefit of researching on animals can be revealed in the development of vaccination against the crippling disease – polio (Bernstein 40). In 1953, polio was a deadly and rampant disease that infected about 53,000 people in the United States and killed around 3,000. Soon after the deadly dissemination of polio, scientists worked assiduously, trying to create a safe vaccine against polio. Their efforts were made possible through research on animals. Potentially beneficial vaccines were first tested on animals. The animals were then exposed to polio, and the vaccines that prevented polio and did no cause harmful side effects to the animals are then tested on humans. This way, a safe vaccine was developed by 1955, and the number of polio infections that year dropped to around a dozen (Cohen 95.). Today, polio has been completely eradicated from the United States (Cohen 95.). Another notable example is the creation of insulin, which helped many diabetics stay alive today. The development of insulin could not have been accomplished without testing on animals (Currie-McGhee 38). These medical advancements could not have been achieved without hard-working research on animals.
In discussing ethics of animal testing, it is important to draw a distinct line between the interests of animals and the welfare of human beings. While it is important that we do not mistreat animals wantonly and prevent suffering as much as possible, it is more important that humans can continue to expect great health advancements by experimenting on animals. Ask yourself: would you like to lose an eye, lose a heart, or maybe lose your life for the welfare of animals?