Animal Rights vs. Medical Testing
While proponents of animal testing assert that the use of animals in research has led to the development of countless life-saving treatments, for humans and animals alike, animal rights activists highlight the cruelty and inhumanity of testing on animals. They argue that the outcome does not outweigh the suffering of the subjects. While some feel that there is no other suitable substitute for these experiments and that animal welfare laws protect the animal subjects from unnecessary pain, others feel that alternatives can be found and that the laws in place to not do enough.
The use of live animals in research has been practiced since at least 500 BC and the argument against it is just as old.
Arguments for animal testing
One of the benefits of animal testing is that it can, and already has, contribute to live-saving medical developments. According to the California Biomedical Research Association, every medical breakthrough of the past century has been the direct result of research using animals. For example, the polio vaccine was tested on animals and reduced the number of occurrences to less than one tenth of a percent in less than a quarter-century. The discovery of insulin occurred during experiments in which dogs had their pancreases removed..
Through animal testing, we have gained further understanding and development in treatment of, but certainly not limited to, breast cancer, cystic fibrosis, and tuberculosis. It also greatly attributed to the development of anesthetics, cardiac valve substitutes, and pacemakers. Animal testing has given us vaccines for hepatitis B and looks promising in the advancement of a vaccine for hepatitis C. These conditions have the potential to kill countless people across the world, and animal testing offers a way to change that.
While many agree that the ethical issues of animal testing are indeed a drawback, there is presently no adequate alternative to testing the living, whole-body system of animals. The anatomy of animals, including humans, is incredibly complex, so while the study of cell cultures in a dish can provide some insights, it does not allow for the testing of a nervous system, immune system, or endocrine system.
To properly evaluate a drug for side effects, you need a circulatory system that can carry the drug to other organs. In addition, animals make appropriate research subjects because they are very similar in many important ways to humans. Chimpanzees share 99% of their DNA with humans while mice and humans are 98% genetically similar. All mammals share common ancestors and possess the same sets of organs as humans and they function in essentially the same way through similar bloodstreams and nervous systems. Because humans and animals are biologically similar, they are susceptible to many of the same conditions as we are, making them adequate test subjects.
Some suggest the use of computer models, but those can only be made reliable through information gathered through animal research, and even the most powerful computers lack the capability to accurately simulate such complex systems. While it would certainly be ideal to not have to test on animals, the lack of an adequate substitute makes that difficult. In addition, animals are often better research subjects than humans because they have shorter life cycles, reducing the time required to record effects of treatment or genetic manipulation across a lifespan or several generations.
Rats and mice are often used in such tests because their short lifespans make them well-suited for long-term research. Logically, animals are the best subjects for such procedures that current science has available.
Another argument for testing on animals is that the research is highly regulated with laws put into place for the sole purpose of protecting animals from mistreatment. Since 1966, the Animal Welfare Act has regulated animal research, in conjunction with local and state laws. The law lists stipulations for housing standards (including size, temperature, access to clean food and water, etc.) and requires that the animals are monitored by veterinarians. Any proposal to use animals for research must be approved by an Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which enforces proper treatment of the test animals.
The majority of research programs volunteer to be reviewed for humane practices by the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International. In addition, any institution that receives funding from the United States Public Health Service must comply with their Human Care policies and rules on use of laboratory animals. On all levels of government, there are laws and regulations put into place to ensure ethical treatment in cases of animal research.
Arguments for animal rights
The main arguments against the use of animals in medical testing is that animal testing is inhumane and cruel. The Humane Society International states that animals used in such experiments are often force-fed, forced to inhale various substances, deprived of food and water, and forced to endure long periods of physical restraint, in addition to the infliction of pain to study its effects and possible remedies.
A test known as the Draize eye test is commonly used by cosmetics companies to study irritation caused by products like shampoo. During the test, rabbits have their eyes held open by clips so that they cannot blink away the product while any irritation that occurs is studied and analyzed. Another common experiment is called the LD50, or lethal dose 50. This test is used to discover how much of a dose of a chemical will kill 50% of the animals in the experiment.
The point of the LD50 test is, literally, to try to kill half of the animals being used. According to the United States Department of Agriculture, during 2010, over 97,000 animals suffered pain during these experiments and were given no anesthesia. The ethical dilemmas of animals testing are legitimate and deniable.
A second argument against animals testing is that there are alternative methods that can be used it similar experiments instead of animals. In vitro testing and studying cell cultures can allow scientists to test on actual human cells. There is a procedure called microdosing in which human volunteers are administered doses too small for negative reactions and then their blood is analyzed.
In other experiments, artificial human skin can be used, such as EpiDerm or ThinCert, commercially available products made from sheets of human skin cells grown in test tubes. Computer models are also able to predict the toxicity of substances and microfluidic chips, which are lined with human cells and have the ability to recreate the functions of human organs, are reaching their advanced stages of development. In addition, these tests cost a fraction of what it takes to perform the research on lab animals.
A two-species lifetime cancer study can cost between $2 million and $4 million when done with in vitro cells while the United States National Institutes of Health spends $14 billion to $31 billion per year on animals research. Many experiments done on animals could possibly be done in other, more responsible ways.
Unpredictable outcomes of animal testing
Another common argument against the use of animals in medical research is that the information gleaned is not always accurate. Vioxx, an arthritis drug, showed to have a protective effect on the hearts of the mice used in the experiments. However, when it was released for human use, it caused more than 27,000 heart attacks and cardiac deaths before being removed from the public market. The animals testing done did not predict this terrible outcome.
Other examples include aspirin, which is dangerous for certain animal species, and tacrolimus, a drug used to lower the risk of organ transplant rejection that was almost banned from human use because of the results of animal research. It is estimated that 94% of drugs that make it past animal tests fail in clinical human trials. There have been more than 100 stroke medications that were effective in animal trials but failed in humans, and over 85 vaccines for HIV have failed after being successful in tests on non-human primates.
Treatments for inflammation are also notorious for passing animal trials but being proven to be ineffective in human subjects. Another example of the live-saving contributions of animal testing is the sleeping pill, thalidomide. Had it not been testing on pregnant animals, its ability to cause severe birth defects would not have been discovered before it was allowed for human use. This low predictability makes some animal research irrelevant and proves that it cannot guarantee the safety of humans.
Many experiments involving animals are flawed, which means that the lives of the animal subjects are often wasted.
In 2009, a study found that in the majority of animal studies publicly funded in the United States and United Kingdom using rodents fell into one of the below catagories.
- 87% of the experiments failed to randomize their animals selection
- 86% did not use blinding to reduce bias
- 59% of them stated an objective or hypothesis and the number and characteristics of animal subjects used
These experiments were not even done correctly, making them invalid and unreliable. Animals used in these experiments that suffered or died did so for nothing, as the experiments did not provide concrete, dependable results.
While there are laws in place to protect animals used in medical experiments, proponents of animal rights know that this does not protect all of them. The Animal Welfare Act, though well-intended, does not cover rats, mice, fish, and birds, which make up approximately 95% of animals used in research. This leaves millions of animals that are vulnerable to mistreatment without any sort of legal protections at all.
Even animals that are protected under the Animal Welfare Act can be abused anyway. It was found in 2009 that over 300 violations of the AWA occurred at the federally funded New Iberia Research Center. Primates used for research there were under such psychological stress that they began mutilating themselves. Infant primates were shown on video to be awake and alert during painful experiments. In a 2011 incident at the California David Center for Neuroscience, three baby mice were sealed alive in a plastic baggies and left unattended where they suffocated and died.
Even with these laws in place, clearly not everyone takes them seriously and ‘protected’ animals continue to suffer. Again, while the Animal Welfare Act does make a positive difference, the vast majority of animals used remains uncovered by these protective regulations and many fall through the cracks, leaving them exposed to abuse.
This issue has been argued countless times from every imaginable standpoint. Supporters of animal testing know that the medical advancement these tests have brought us have been invaluable, while proponents of animals rights know that the ethical issues of this kind of research are alarming and troublesome. The debate over animal testing is a long one and will likely continue to be battled out until an infallible alternative is made available.
Animal Welfare Act, §§ 54-2131-2151 (2013). Print.
“Animal Welfare and Animal Rights.” Animal Welfare and Animal Rights. States United for Biomedical Research, 2015. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.
Briggs, Helen. “Human Skin Grown in Lab ‘can Replace Animal Testing’ – BBC News.” BBC News. BBC, 24 Apr. 2014. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.
“Do “Alternatives” Exist?” Speaking of Research. Word Press, 20 Mar. 2008. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.
Hajar, Rachel. “Animal Testing and Medicine.” Heart Views : The Official Journal of the Gulf Heart Association 12.1 (2011): 42. PMC. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.
“LD50 and Lethality Testing.” Animal Ethics. Animal Ethics InfoLink, 2015. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.
“Should Animals Be Used for Scientific or Commercial Testing?” ProConorg Headlines. ProCon.org, 27 Aug. 2015. Web. 19 Oct. 2015.