Monday Article #8: Discussing Animal Usage in Biomedical Research
Disclaimer: This article serves to discuss ethical considerations on animal usage with no intention of transitioning readers into vegetarian or veganism nor consists of any biassed opinions.
Animals are prevalently used in the scientific field for research, teaching or testing purposes. They play a critical and irreplaceable role in medical advancements as per the cellular, molecular, pharmacological, physiological, pathological knowledge gained. However, the increasing public interest in animal welfare, as well as animal rights, continue to strike questions on the morality and ethical issues of animal usage. This article aims to explore the different perspectives on animal usage, especially for biomedical research purposes.
In the early days, animal welfare didn’t come across to humans, let alone animal rights. In fact, to one point, animals were considered soulless, according to Cartesian philosophy. This suggests that animals were nothing but the machinery that humans can do anything to or with and are worthless of moral concerns. This was generally accepted by biomedical scientists before 1846 until the successful research of ether anaesthetic in animals in 2012. Conversely, many opposing philosophies such as speciesism and preference utilitarianism were proposed to justify animal rights. Specifically, an English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham who emphasises on utilitarianism, introduced “suffering”, particularly sentience i.e. ability to feel pain and suffer in animals. Therefore, justifying their right to not suffer. To note, albeit their stand in animal rights, many of them appeared to be supportive of biomedical activities, as long the same can be applied to humans.
From legal-moral perspectives, it appears that the definition of animals is critical in determining animal rights, such that when animals remain to be legally termed as “property”, they shall not and would not be given rights to. This statement is supported in a book titled Rain without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement, which is co-written by Professor Francione and Dr Regan. Currently, many efforts have been taken to reclassify animals to claim animal rights, which includes the attempt to reclassify animals from “property” to “sentient beings” in New Zealand. Animals were also described as “moral patients”, similarly to new infants or coma patients, who are unable to speak for themselves but are deserving of rights.
Importantly, the absence of animal rights doesn’t give us humans the right to do anything to or with animals. Humans, as members of the moral community, possess the intellectual capabilities to recognise the “right” and “wrong” and the rights of others. While mistreating animals is generally accepted as “wrong” doing, we should be able to recognise any wrongdoings and treat animals humanely. Some argue that animals are not of the moral community, as per their disability to meet the conditions, hence not liable for rights. This said, the lack of capacities on which moral autonomy or agency depends, such as disability to recognise the rights of others, remain to be the resistance to claiming animal rights. Additionally, term fixation is expected to cause legal turmoils and unnecessary complications, such as the case of switching animal “owners” to animal “guardians” and the providence of personhood to chimpanzees.
As aside, the differentiation of animal welfare and animal rights is important as both serve different aims. Animal rights aim for the complete liberation of non-human beings whereas animal welfare focuses on their wellbeing. Currently, no non-human beings have met the conditions of the moral community. Thus only legal measures can be and have been implemented to protect and ensure their well-being i.e. animal welfare.
In addition, the pervasive opinions on biomedical research appeared to be the source of public concern. The especially long and large amount of research needed, as well as the significant amount of failed and insignificant research, have brought about the impression that animal usage was unnecessary. The problem is, this ambiguous nature of research will always be there as no one could tell the significance prior to the research itself. Hence, varied and continuous research is necessary to ensure safety and effectiveness. Plus, should animal usage be banned, any opportunity towards significant discoveries will be eliminated. Further, some argue that biomedical research only directs to human benefits. Truth is, not all biomedical research is directed to human benefits, such as the development of vaccines for parvovirus in dogs. Should animal rights be claimed, biomedical research that is beneficial to animals must also decrease accordingly and equally.
What we can do, as proposed by Russell and Burch, are the 3Rs: reduction, refinement and replacement. Ways to reduce animal usage include well-designed research and using the best animal model to ensure statistical validity. Interestingly, to ensure statistical validity, animal usage will increase. Refinement refers to “any decrease in the incidence or severity of inhumane procedures applied to animals.” Implementations to refine normally target for minimisation of pain, distress or discomfort, which includes positive reinforcement, euthanasia, etc. Out of the three, refinement is still the most promising yet. Organoids advancements encourage ‘replacement’ as it’s said to be more effective and more moral in comparison to animal testing. Not only does it cross the species barrier, but it resolves ethical concerns. Even so, they are not commonly used for it lacks the capability to replicate the complexity of the human body. Though it may be possible, organoid developments are still premature and they are unlikely to be available in the near future. This said, animal usage remains to be the best option for biomedical research.
A uniform agreement in animal usage remains difficult to achieve, especially on where the line should be drawn, considering all the different perspectives (many other aspects were not covered in this article). With the increasing interest in animal rights, it is difficult to say how it would encompass the future of animal usage. As of now, animal usage in biomedical research is irreplaceable. Banning animal usage in biomedical research wouldn’t solve the problem, as much as vegetarianism and veganism do. The best is for all to always consider whether their action matches their sense of right and wrong, morals and ethics.
Utilitarianism: a theory saying that the aim of any action should be the largest possible balance of pleasure over pain or the greatest happiness of the greatest number” or “the belief that a morally good action helps the greatest number of people [or animals?]”.
Positive reinforcement: the introduction of a desirable or pleasant stimulus after a behaviour.
Euthanasia: the act or practice of killing or permitting the death of hopelessly sick or injured individuals (such as persons or domestic animals) in a relatively painless way for reasons of mercy.
Francione, G.L.1996. Rain without Thunder: The Ideology of the Animal Rights Movement. Temple University Press, Philadelphia.
Library of Congress. 2015. Global Legal Monitor: New Zealand: Animal welfare legislation recognizes animals as sentient, bans cosmetic testing. http://www.loc.gov/law/foreign-news/article/new-zealand-animal-welfare-legislation-recognizes-animals-as-sentient-bans-cosmetic-testing/
North Carolina State University. 2015. Animal subjects in research. http://www.ncsu.edu/grad/preparing-future-leaders/rcr/modules/module_4.doc
W.M.S. Russell and R.L. Burch. 1959. The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique. Chapter 4. https://caat.jhsph.edu/principles/chap4d
Robert H. Weichbrod, Gail A.Thompson, and John N. Norton. 2018. Management of Animal Care and Use Programs in Research, Education, and Testing, 2nd edition, Chapter 4
This article on bioethics was prepared by : Lim Tze Yee