Vivisection, Part One: The “Necessity” of Vivisection

One of the main arguments that I make is that although almost everyone accepts that it is morally wrong to inflict “unnecessary” suffering and death on animals, 99% of the suffering and death that we inflict on animals can be justified only by our pleasure, amusement, or convenience. For example, the best justification that we have for killing the billions of nonhumans that we eat every year is that we enjoy the taste of animal flesh and animal products. This is not an acceptable justification if we take seriously, as we purport to, that it is wrong to inflict unnecessary suffering or death on animals, and it illustrates the confused thinking that I characterize as our “moral schizophrenia” when it comes to nonhumans.

A follow-up question that I often get is: “What about vivisection? Surely that use of animals is not merely for our pleasure, is it?”

It may be argued that the use of animals in biomedical research intended to produce data that will be useful for important issues of human health and disease is not transparently frivolous as is our use of animals for food, hunting, entertainment, clothing, etc. The use of animals for this purpose represents a very small segment of the many activities that constitute vivisection, and much animal use in this context has more to do with corporate profits and the endless barrage of consumer products that fuel those profits than with compelling claims of human health.

It is at least plausible to claim that the use of animals for testing and developing procedures and cures is necessary to obtain certain desirable and significant benefits, and that this animal use at least ostensibly involves something other than pleasure, amusement, or convenience. Those who defend the use of nonhumans for this purpose also claim that they use nonhumans only where an alternative is not available, use the fewest number of animals possible, and expose those animals to the least amount of pain and suffering consistent with the scientific objectives of the use. Therefore, they argue that our use of animals for this purpose, and the pain, suffering, and death that we inflict incidental to it, are necessary in a way that cannot be claimed for our other uses of nonhumans.

I do not share the view of some animal advocates that we have learned nothing useful from vivisection, although I do maintain that claims about what we have learned are greatly exaggerated. However, I also believe that there are serious problems with claims of necessity, as well as the claim that researchers take seriously the moral imperative to inflict only that suffering necessary for a particular scientific purpose.

First, animals are almost always used to develop medical procedures or therapies; therefore, it is difficult to make any accurate factual representation about the actual causal role that animal use has played in any particular medical discoveries. Since animals are always used as models of disease or to test procedures or drugs, we cannot claim with any certainty to know that procedures or discoveries that are attributed to animal use would not have occurred in its absence.

Second, because of the biological differences between human and other animals, there is always a problem extrapolating the results of animal experiments to humans. Although the uncertainty of extrapolation affects all biomedical research involving animals, it is particularly problematic in the context of the use of animals for testing purposes, which usually involves predicting how humans will react to exposure over a lifetime to small quantities of a substance based on how nonhumans respond to large quantities over a short period. The problem of extrapolation is compounded by the fact that there is no species of animal that has reactions identical to those of humans.

Third, the data produced by animal use are often unreliable. For example, results from toxicity tests using animals can vary dramatically depending on the method that is used. It is not uncommon for an inhalation study of a chemical to result in the development of cancer when oral administration of the same substance does not. Moreover, variations in acute and chronic toxicity tests may also be quite dramatic. These variations occur from laboratory to laboratory, within the same species of animal, and between species of animals.

Fourth, any claim of necessity assumes there is no other way to solve human health problems. That is, even if animal experiments are causally related to the production of data relevant to human health matters, it does not follow that animal experiments are the only, or the most efficient, way to solve those health problems. Animal research is costly, and it may plausibly be argued that, if the money were spent in other ways, the end result might be better. For example, the considerable expenditure on AIDS research using animals has produced little of use to humans suffering from AIDS and most of what has resulted in longer and better lives for those suffering from HIV and AIDS has come from clinical trials with humans.

It is certainly plausible to claim that if the money spent on in-vivo research were instead spent on public safe-sex education campaigns, needle exchanges, and condom distribution, the rate of new HIV cases would drop dramatically. The choice to use animal experiments to address the problem is, in many ways, as much a political and social decision as a scientific one. Animal experiments are considered an acceptable way of solving the AIDS problem whereas needle exchanges, condom distribution, and safe-sex education are politically controversial.

Moreover, there are strong institutional incentives that militate against the use of alternatives to in-vivo research such as computer models. Animal use is familiar to experimenters who are often reluctant to embrace new and unfamiliar technologies. But the fact that vivisection may be more politically, socially, or institutionally acceptable than other ways of addressing health problems does not, of course, mean that it is more effective.

Fifth, there is empirical evidence that challenges the notion that animal experiments contribute positively to human health and indicates that, in many instances, they have actually been counterproductive. Numerous examples illustrate this point. For example, although studies concluded by the early 1960s that a correlation between lung cancer and cigarette smoking existed, the failure to develop an animal model of lung cancer led researchers to reject the validity of the theory that smoking caused lung cancer.

Sixth, even if we accept that some use of animals is empirically necessary in cases involving serious issues of human health, there is a great deal of vivisection that does not fit into this category and where animal use can only be described as trivial and unnecessary and, in some cases, downright bizarre. For example, psychological journals are rich with examples of animal use that are hard to defend even if we accord only minimal importance to animal interests. Moreover, a great deal of animal use for testing indisputably frivolous or duplicative products cannot plausibly be characterized as necessary.

Seventh, in making any claim that we need to use animals to find cures for human diseases, we must at least consider that a great deal of that disease appears to be related to a clearly unnecessary use of animals—our eating of animal products. Indeed, much in-vivo research purports to concern illness caused by wholly unnecessary and often very destructive human behavior. This matter implicates issues of moral justification, but it is also relevant to claims of empirical necessity.

Eighth, the claim that researchers inflict only the amount of pain or suffering required for the particular use is open to serious question. In the first place, most of the nonhumans that are used in experiments—rats and mice—are not even covered by the Animal Welfare Act, which means that the data necessary to support such a claim are not available. More importantly, however, the information that we have about animal pain and suffering comes from the reports of those who do the experiments and there have been multiple instances in which researchers do not regard even invasive procedures to be painful or to cause distress in animals.

Of course, even if animal use in this context is not transparently frivolous in the way that our other animal uses are, that does not mean that it is morally justifiable. As I argue in Introduction to Animal Rights: Your Child or the Dog? and elsewhere, if we accept an animal rights perspective, we cannot justify this use of animals irrespective of any benefits that we might receive as a result.

Gary L. Francione
© 2007 Gary L. Francione