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By Alexandra Allard-Coutu April 30, 2008

Animal Testing and Ethics: Is It Right?

Illustrated by VANESSA WALL

“An estimated seven million dogs and cats are euthanized from animal shelters annually and roughly one million animals are killed daily by automobiles.[…] [Americans] purchased approximately 81 million cats and 67 million dogs to be kept as pets […] and over 5 billion animals were consumed [in 2003]. […] [C]omparatively, it is estimated that 17 million animals were used that year for biomedical research.” (Maureen Ambrose “Drug Testing and Procedural Fairness.” 2005)


Experimentation on animals arose as an ethical issue in the seventeenth century when philosopher and physiologist René Descartes argued animals exhibit behavioral and instinctive pain behavior rather than experience actual pain1. It evolved into a major ethical controversy, and the circumstances by which the use of animals for medical testing can be considered ethical are difficult to ascertain. However, due to the crucial role animal subjects play in drug development, the minimizing of human suffering and exposure to untested drugs, animal testing directly contributes to the greater good of humanity and the greatest utility. Because of their importance to medical progress, regulations designed to protect animals subjects, and to minimize abuse have been created as legal obligations dictated by the Criminal Code of Canada2 , the Canadian Council on Animal Care3 , and the Animal’s Research Act4 . With ethical circumstances provided and respected, it can be deduced that minimum suffering and maximum benefit can be ensured and it is therefore possible for animal research to be considered ethical.

The principle of utility dictates the action leading to or producing the greatest happiness or pleasure for the greatest number is the most ethical5. Teleological in orientation, the principle emphasizes the ends rather than the means and, ultimately, happiness as an intrinsic good. Calculation of this intrinsic good is divided by the net amount, intensity, duration, fruitfulness and likelihood of inducing further happiness6. It follows that intellectual rather than sensual happiness is fundamentally superior; humans, possessing higher faculties and a greater capacity for the enjoyment of such intrinsic goods, live a superior quality of life than animals. Utilitarianist John Stuart Mill states “It is indisputable that the being whose capacities of enjoyment are low has the greatest chanresce of having them fully satisfied; and a highly endowed being will always feel that any happiness which he can look for […] is imperfect [but this] will not make him envy the being who is indeed unconscious of the imperfections […]. It is better to be a human being dissatisfied than a pig satisfied.”7 Minimizing the suffering of human begins would thus be optimal, with animal research as a means, since the greatest quality of happiness would be achieved as an end.

Indeed, without animal testing, human beings would suffer from the consequences of adverse effects of new drugs and the slowing of medical advancement8. Without prior animal research, there would be an increase in incidents such as Thalidomide triggered birth defects. Thalidomide, a sedative anti-inflammatory drug, was prescribed from 1957-1961, without prior animal research to pregnant women as a sleep aid, and due to side effects unpredicted through cell culture tests, 12, 581 children born from 1956-1962 were afflicted with life-threatening malformations.9 Furthermore, research for preventative and healing drugs to treat cancer and AIDS would be greatly set back. Such ailments pose similar world wide threats polio, diabetes, and leukemia once represented, all in the process of eradication in 2005 due to animal testing10. Indeed, biomedical research on monkeys lead to the discovery of the preventative vaccine for polio and studies of the effect of the diabetes type I in dogs lead to the discovery and isolation of insulin in 191511. Where in 1950, nearly every child diagnosed with leukemia died within six months, today, 75% of the children diagnosed with leukemia are cured through bone marrow transplants, a procedure approved after testing on Rhesus monkeys in 198912. Therefore, it can be said that because animal testing is crucial to medical advancement, which in itself minimizes suffering, animal research can be considered ethical as it aims for the greatest quality of utility.

In contrast, Tom Regan, radical animal rights activist, argues that the system of animal experimentation is comparable to slavery and sacrificing an animal to save a human is non-justifiable due to the equal weight of animal and human rights: “[…] they too have a distinct kind of value in their own right, if we do; therefore, they too have a right not to be treated in ways that fail to respect this value.”13 Yet, pro-human claims argue that human beings have rights since they can make moral claims whereas animals do not, or do to a lesser degree, because they cannot14. Since, by this argument, animals have no or lesser rights, and ought not to be considered as humans, medical testing on animals can be both justified and ethical.

Carl Cohen defends the use of animal subjects by arguing that “Rights arise, and can be intelligently defended, only among beings that actually do, or can, make moral claims against one another.”15. This is supported by Descartes’ “Cogito, ergo sum”16 , where to think is to be, and thus animals could not be considered on the same level as human beings, and would inevitably have lesser rights. As determined by Peter Singer in 1975, moral concern should be allotted depending on and in relation to the characteristics of the being in question (sensitivity to pain, awareness, sociability, response, etc) regardless of species.17 Animals are less endowed on a conscious and intellectual level and as C.S. Lewis states, though animals are sentient and do feel pain, and they differ from humans in that humans are also self-conscious; the rat will feel pain and will be aware of the pain while the human would feel and be aware of his own pain18. Accordingly, it can be considered ethical to use animal subjects prior to or to avoid using human subjects as it would be minimizing the greatest pain, and contributing to a greater utility.

Speciesism dictates that medical testing can be considered ethical if unresponsive human subjects would be considered for the test since all organisms are sensitive to pain19. Why should an active, sensitive and responsive chimpanzee be used in medical experiments rather than an anencephalic infant, lacking most of the brain and irreversibly mute and comatose? Similarly, why should an active, sensitive and responsive human be used rather than a semi-aware, intellectually inferior and unconscious rat? Singer argues that speciesism is comparable to racism as a violation of rights; animals must morally count for something as their sensitivity to pain acts as a basis for concern. Concordantly, Ingrid Newkirk, the Leader of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), states “When it comes to suffering, a rat is a pig is a dog is a boy” 20. Moreover, Jeremy Bentham, a utilitarian philosopher, argues that it is not a question of whether animals reason, but that they suffer, and thus they should be considered in the greater good so that the suffering of the animals is not excessive in relation to benefits for human beings 21. This reinforces the “three R’s” method suggested by PETA to ensure the ethical treatment of animals in research: ‘reduction (use of fewer animals and the sharing of research data), refinement (alteration of existing procedures to minimize discomfort and comply with basic animal rights), and replacement (surrogate research methods including cell or tissue cultures and computer simulations)’ 22. Hence, biomedical testing on animals can be considered ethical if methods such as the “three R’s” are used, reinforcing the notion of speciesism where animals have moral worth, and emphasizing the cost/benefit analysis including the suffering of test subjects to ensure the significance of the benefit to humans outweighs the suffering of the subjects.

To conclude, due to differences in consciousness, intellectual capacity and ability to make moral claims, as well as how the quality of happiness holds more weight than the quantity of happiness, the ethical use of animals in biomedical testing is possible. It is important to identify unnecessary tests, and the violation of basic animal rights as declared by the Office for Protection of Research Risks23 . Judging the concrete scientific benefits of animal testing in an ongoing project is difficult since the scientific process is based on a trial and error approach; it is thus equally difficult to ascertain when the benefits of research outweigh the suffering of animals. It is also important to note that though the testing circumstances, and the act of conducting biomedical research has been proven to be ethically permissible, not all animal research is conducted ethically as human abuse of the system and error often arise, and herein lies the controversy, as opposed to within the notion of the testing in itself.

End Notes

1 - John A. Eisenberg, The Right to Live and Die. (Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1973) 34-35.

2- The Criminal Code of Canada, Cruelty to Animals Section, forbids "causing unnecessary suffering"(Gary E. McCuen When Research is Evil. (New York: Oxford Press, 2002) 12.

3- Canadian Council on Animal Care is a national peer-review organization co-funded by the Medical Research Council (MRC) and the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC) where assessment panels evaluate animal care and use in Canadian universities and community colleges, government laboratories, and commercial laboratories. An in-depth site visit is performed every three years and follow-up visits may be made, announced or unannounced. If institutions are found to be in non-compliance with CCAC guidelines, all granting agencies and relevant government ministries and departments are notified, and non-compliance seriously jeopardizes research funds.

4- The Animal’s Research Act deals with the procurement and/or use of laboratory animals. The Act is complementary with the CCAC, and it requires the annual registration of all research facilities in Canada Inspectors conduct unannounced inspections of any premises on which animals used in research are maintained. This includes not only animal quarters, but the laboratories and procedure rooms where animals are used.

5- Barbara McKinnon, Ethics: Theory and Contemporary Issues. (San Francisco: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007) 49.

6- Ibid

7- Ibid, 67

8- Thomas Garrett, Harold Baillie and Rosallen Garrett. Health Care Ethics: Principles and Problems. (New Jersey: Prentice Hall, 2001) 67.

9- John Mark Freeman Tough Decisions: Cases in Medical Ethics. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001) 92-93

10- Ibid

11- Maureen Ambrose. “Drug Testing and Procedural Fairness.”(Journal of Social Justice Research. Vol 13. Netherlands: Springer Press, 2000. 20 Vols) 2.

12- Ibid

13- Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights. (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983) 37.

14- Gregory E. Pence. Classical Cases in Medical Ethics: Accounts of Cases that have Shaped Medical Ethics, with Philosophical, Legal and Historical Backgrounds. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995) 213

15- Carl Cohen. “The Case for Animal Rights.” (New England Journal of Medicine. Vol. 315. Maine: Plusher Press, 1986) 868

16- John A. Eisenberg, The Right to Live and Die. (Toronto: Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 1973) 34-35.

17- Peter Singer. Animal Liberation (New York: New York Review Books, 1975) p. 23

18- C.S Lewis How Human Suffering Raises Almost Intolerable Intellectual Problems. (New York: Macmillan, 1940) 131-133.

19- Peter Singer. Animal Liberation (New York: New York Review Books, 1975) p. 23

20- David Sztybel. The Right of Animal Persons. 2004. University of Toronto. 22 Oct. 2006. 

21- Barbara McKinnon, Ethics: Theory and Contemporary Issues. (San Francisco: Thomson Wadsworth, 2007) 54.

22- Susan Isen, “Laying the Foundation for Animal Rights: Interview with Tom Regan” (Animals Agenda, July-August, 1984) 5.

23- OPRR is a branch of Health and Human Services, and negotiates between PETA (People for Ethical Treatment of Animals) and NIH (National Institutes of Health). It uses committees of medical and veterinary practitioners, all of whom use animals in research, to issue reports and to judge the ethical value of research projects. They judge projects based on the Public Health Service Animal Welfare Policy, that is, anesthesia, supervision, training, superior veterinary care, only necessary injuries, only necessary repeated or varying injuries to the same animal, respect, proper equipment, etc., rules designed to protect animals

About the illustrator

Vanessa Wall is a Montreal based illustrator with an interest in just about everything the universe has to offer. Her passions include biology, science, natural history and understanding how things work. When she was a child she would spend hours in her garden studying the plants and animals she found there.

With her insatiable curiosity and endless enthusiasm, Vanessa does not see herself focusing on only one area of expertise throughout her Illustration career. For the meantime, she would like to focus on environmental design and character design, though she is also interested in working on comics and editorial illustrations.


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    March 30, 2009

    After reading this article, it really made me think whether we can ever justify animal testing? We have to agree, that it did help save many lives, but would we want what is happening to them, happen to us? We cannot justify animal testing because we are only performing such acts on them due to their species. Animals were showed to be very similar to humans except for their different and slower brain. Would if be correct to say that performing experiment on a baby brain damaged orphan is justifiable as well? It doesn’t mean that because animals are from a different species that is should be acceptable. Even though, animals testing can save many lives, we should take in consideration that we are very similar to them and try to lower the experiments done on them.

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    December 6, 2009

    This article definitely made me think twice about my views on animal testing. I have always been a person who has been pro animal testing as long as it is not done with purposeful malice. I think that the author brings a good point when speaking about how maybe its not fair to test on a perfectly healthy chimpanzee when there is an available infant who is cognitively impaired and not fully functional. However, I have been raised in a society that does everything it can to save a human life. I think that it is more important to try to save an impaired human being by risking an animal, than to risk an impaired human being in order to protect a healthy animal. I think that animal testing should be considered a last resort, however if it even has a chance of saving human lives, i think it should be carried out.

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