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Animal Experimentation: Practical and Ethical Issues

written by: Emma Lloyd•edited by: Paul Arnold•updated: 11/23/2008

Fourth in a series about the use of animals in research, this article examines some of the ethical and practical issues involved.

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    Ethical Issues

    In terms of ethics, the main issue in animal testing is simply that many experimental animals suffer in ways which are unnatural to them. Through the use of genetic manipulation, obese mice, diabetic mice, and mice with Huntington’s disease can be created. Surgical experiments can be performed on larger animals – such as pigs, sheep, and dogs, as “practice" for human surgery.

    Normally, such things would not happen to these animals. Any suffering they might experience during such experiments is entirely the making of the researcher – and often these animals are purpose-bred and would not even exist if it were not for the research. These animals have been bred by us, for our use, and suffer on our behalf.

    As humans—the dominant species on the planet—we can treat animals in any way we choose, and do with them what we please. The question is, is it moral, or ethical, to treat them in ways which cause suffering – even if it is to our benefit? To some opponents of animal experimentation there are no benefits which justify the use of animals; others believe that animal experimentation is acceptable providing that suffering to the animals is minimized.

    Still others oppose animal testing selectively on the basis of the purpose of the tests, believing that animal experimentation for the advancement of medical science is acceptable, but cosmetic testing is not, for example.

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    Are Animal Tests Reliable?

    Opponents of animal experimentation point to the obvious differences between humans and other animals as proof that animal research is not reliable. However, while it’s true that humans respond differently to certain substances than do other animal species (arsenic is not toxic to sheep, for example, and chocolate is toxic to dogs), there are many more similarities than there are differences – and toxicology differences don’t negate the validity of genetic studies, for example.

    Another pressing issue is one which was first voiced in 1655 by Edmund O’Meara, a physiologist, who said, “the miserable torture of vivisection places the body in an unnatural state." If an experimental animal is in pain, or suffers in any way, during an experiment, might that not call into question the accuracy of any results gained in the research?

    And if this is the case, doesn’t this further question the ethics of animal research? After all, using animals in this way is even more abhorrent if the accuracy of the results is in any doubt at all. The ability to achieve reliable, reproducible results is a cornerstone of the scientific method, and it is crucial that animal testing is able achieve those results

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    A Matter of Practicality

    The majority of the most important advances in medical history in the twentieth century were made using animals as test subjects. It is doubtful whether many of these would have been achieved if animals were not available for use by medical researchers.

    There are alternatives to animal research (these will be examined in the next article in this series), but in many cases they are simply not acceptable substitutes for a living, breathing organism. The Institute for Laboratory Animal Research of the U.S. National Academy of Sciences agrees that even the most sophisticated computer modeling is currently unable to successfully model the molecular and cellular interactions that occur in even the least complex of live organisms, particularly in an environmental context.

    Medical science is in agreement, for the most part, that the use of animals in medical research is a practical necessity. Both the United States and the British governments, among many others, support the use of animals in research, provided that suffering of experimental animals is minimized.