I am your host Dr. Rachael Brown and in this this episode of the P-value we are going to explore the ethics of biomedical research on animals i.e., research in animals aimed at developing treatments for human diseases. What (if anything) justifies the use of animals for biomedical research? Assuming that some justification is possible, how do we make sure that biomedical research using animals is as ethical or humane as possible?
So why use animals in biomedical research in the first place? Afterall, if we are studying human illness and disease, why not study humans, rather than mice or rats? One obvious reason is that these species have much faster generation times than our own — many, many rats and mice can be born and live in one human lifetime. This makes it much faster and easier to do all sorts of experiments on these species than humans. They can, for example, be bred rapidly at large enough numbers to do large scale-controlled experiments in laboratory conditions. It is also relatively easy to breed specific genetic lines of these species, thus reducing the influence of genetic variation in our experiments. Whilst extremely important, these are pragmatic reasons to use rats and mice in experimentation rather than humans, but what about moral or ethical reasons? If humans had faster generation times, would we use them in the sorts of experiments we use mice and rats in? Would we think it ok to breed large numbers of genetically modified humans and keep them in lab conditions? The answer is surely no, and the reason for that is that many, if not most, people think that humans have a different moral status to mice and rats. Why this is the case will be the focus of the rest of the podcast.
So, prudential reasons aside, why do people think it is ok to use rats and mice in lab experiments that we wouldn’t perform on members of our own species? In philosophy speak the reason typically given is that non-humans have a different moral status or right to moral consideration than humans. This is usually justified by reference to some sort of special characteristic or characteristics only seen in our species and considered to be of special moral value or status . There are many things that we can place in the bucket of “characteristics” in this sort of argument. For a religious person, it may be simply that human life and human suffering has a special value because of special creation. Typically, however, moral consideration is considered to rest on the ability to suffer and reflect on suffering.
Historically, there have been those that have argued that suffering is solely the domain of humans. Although strongly rejected by anti-vivisectionists of the time, the oft recited line “animals are automata” reflects the view of many pre-20th Century thinkers. Today, in the case of laboratory animals like rats and mice, very few would claim that they lack the capacity to suffer. What most would argue however is that the nature of their suffering is importantly different to that in humans. Humans, for example, can anticipate pain, discuss pain, and reflect on pain. Our experience of pain is very conceptually rich and that of most animals is (so the argument goes) less so. Because of this, it is said, that although it is not acceptable to treat animals inhumanely without cause, it is acceptable if the scientific benefits outweigh the welfare costs. What do you think of this? Do animals have a different sort of sentience to our own? Is this the relevant property when it comes to moral consideration? When we come back we will look at some reasons to question this line of argument.
One reason to reject arguments for animal experimentation that rely on claims about sentience is that they don’t give reason not to use a variety of human subjects in experimentation. If moral status is all about sentience, then why not carry out experiments on babies whose sentience is less developed than adult humans, or on those with severe brain injuries? The philosopher, Peter Singer, argues that there is no good justification for avoiding this sort of unpalatable conclusion and those that do warrant the mistreatment of animals are merely being speciesist rather than basing their views in real differences between humans and other species. Whilst Singer is persuasive, we are left with a conundrum. We either have to come up with some non-speciesist justicification for attributing a different moral status to non-human animals, or at least some species of non-human animals, or we have to approach animal research in a very different way
This challenge is magnified when we look at the growing body of research on animal pain and suffering. Rats and mice, for example, show clear markers of pain, not only in their avoidance of noxious stimuli and pain related behaviours but also in nuanced experiments where they are able to self-administer pain relievers. Such research makes it harder to place them in a separate category at least with respect to sentience. How can you tell if an animal has a “rich” or “limited” experience of pain? Is pain even what we are really interested in here? Can you think of any other categories that could be morally relevant instead?
Whilst for some, the aforementioned reasons totally preclude the use of animals in research, scientific research on animals has a reasonably broad public acceptance. Most believe that the scientific and benefits of the research warrant any negative welfare outcomes for the animals involved. It is undeniable that the use of animals in scientific research has bought about numerous advances in modern medicine. The use of insulin for diabetes, the development of transplant drugs and techniques, the COVID-19 vaccine and so many more treatments have required the use of non-human animals. Whilst the benefits of such research are huge, Singer’s accusation of speciesism looms large and it remains important that we consider the ethical costs and ramifications and how we can do our best to minimise harm to those animals we use in research.
Fortunately, government heavily regulates this sort of research to ensure that this is the case. The Australian code for the care and use of animals for scientific
Which governs all animal research in Australia requires that proposed research be assessed by an Ethics Committee. These committees are made up of scientists, vets, welfare representatives and lay people. They consider proposed research and assess its expected scientific benefit alongside any welfare risks and costs. Attempts to reduce the number of animals used, replace animals with non-animal substitutes and refine experiments to limit their welfare impact must be demonstrated before research can be approved and carried out.
The use of animals in research is a gnarly issue and one that divides opinion. Whatever, your view, the fact remains that some 10 million animals are used for research or training purposes in Australia each year. This figure covers a plethora of species from mice and rats to dogs, cats, guinea pigs, rabbits, sheep, birds, fish and amphibians. It also covers a huge range of work, from laboratory studies in which animals ultimately euthanised through to purely observational wildlife work observing and managing native species.
Ultimately all this requires careful consideration of the ethical and moral issues involved. Central to this our understanding of ourselves and what it is to be a moral entity.