The Great Debate: Animal Testing?

FOR – Ezra

I find utilitarian arguments reprehensible when applied to humans, as most of us do. But when applied to animals they are justified. I could not, for instance, see myself agreeing that one man should have his organs removed against his will to save the lives of four others, but when we change the “one man” to “one capuchin monkey” and “four others” to “countless human beneficiaries” my position shifts. This flexible position which is modified according to the species in question is born of an intuition that humans are superior to non-human animals which are to be used by us as tools. The vegans and vegetarians have my utmost respect for their logical consistency in opposing this position. But to those who agree that animals should be killed for food, then you must also agree with animal testing to avoid hypocrisy.

There is of course the question of undue suffering. Life is, first and foremost, suffering which we are charged with alleviating if we are to find meaning in our existence. Inflicting suffering for suffering’s sake is evil and indefensible. Animal testing is used to alleviate the suffering of humans at the expense of non-human animal suffering, and unless you believe all animals are equal then the utility of animal testing is unavoidable. Though, in our selection of animals for testing we should use the lowest order animal possible to attain the necessary information. Which brings us to the real problem of value with regards to species. Humans must be placed at the peak of value, with animals such as great apes – which we instinctively understand as close biological kin – and animals like dogs and cats – whose presence in our lives has shaped our own evolution – placed secondarily. All other animals trail behind these in decreasing moral worth according to our instinctive attachment to them.

The argument surrounding this point is perhaps the fundamental one, and one which can only be made from a position of faith. In this there are three positions: 1. All life is equally valuable (classic environmentalist); 2. All life is equally invaluable (nihilist); 3. Life is tiered, with human life of primary value (humanist/theist). These positions are axiomatic and explain why the arguments surrounding animal rights are so insoluble. Of course, all animals share an evolutionary history, but what is concerning about such anti-animal testing arguments is the ideology with which they are loaded, which asserts that humans and non-human animals are on a level playing field: that we are of equal moral value. This ultimately anti-human philosophy is one made easily recognisable by its exponents who can often be heard crafting illustrations of an Earth better off without us. The animal testing debate is really just a token of the greater philosophical war being waged by those who believe in humanity and those who do not. There is a reasonable discussion to be had about animal testing, but we would do well to distance ourselves from the hyper-environmentalist pseudo-moralism of resentful ideologues.

AGAINST – Samantha

There’s little doubt that without animal testing over the past century, we would not have achieved the scale and speed of medical and biochemical advances that we have. Breakthroughs in treating cancer and cardiac disease, the development of antibiotics, of vaccines to eliminate several diseases, as well as current research into Parkinson’s Disease and Alzheimer’s have all developed in some way from animal testing. But despite the progress both in research and in animal welfare standards, current testing systems are not yet confined to what is purely necessary. Equally, a system which regards animal testing as inevitable risks ignoring potentially more effective alternatives.

Proponents argue that with the potential for ever more intricate advancements, continued testing is indispensable. They claim the 3 Rs – replace, reduce and refine – are adequate for managing animal welfare. An estimated 70 million animals were used in experiments in 2016, with the USA responsible for around 20 million of these, (not counting invertebrates, on which records are not required). Worryingly, a proportion of annual experiments are for cosmetics, particularly in the USA, and also China where animal testing is required for imports. This means the repetition of needless suffering, often funded by major pharmaceutical companies which had pledged to end animal testing. That profit prevails over principle here reflects a certain complacency, and suggests current systems are inadequate. A more multilateral approach to knowledge sharing from past testing could go a long way to addressing this.

It is true that there has been important progress – for example, research on non-human primates in the UK reached a 40 year low last year. In some ways, this is a reassuring statistic, reflecting real efforts to reduce the impact. And yet, if numbers can fall in this way when our research is at its most complex, how confident can we be that animal experimentation is restricted to what is necessary and effective?

Naturally, for every great breakthrough, there are countless unsuccessful attempts. HIV drugs found to be effective in non-human primates were ineffective in humans. Thalidomide was presumed safe after having been found to be harmless to rats and mice. A continued reliance on animal testing in the present day leads to missed opportunities, as well as risks. Until we look seriously at how we can phase out animal experimentation unless absolutely essential, more effective options risk being marginalised.

One of these is stem-cell research, which continues to be held back by ethical objections regarding the use of cells from days old embryos. Whilst not offering precisely the same scenarios, stem cell research offers extensive opportunities, including with the second man to be seemingly cured of HIV, following a stem cell transplant.

We also have in vitro testing, as well as computer modelling; a recent test at Johns Hopkins University found advanced algorithms drawn from chemical databases could predict a new chemical’s toxicity more accurately than animal testing.

Whilst there’s said to be a consensus within the scientific community that animal testing remains necessary, the developments we are seeing clearly challenge the idea that it’s inevitable. Now is the time for researchers and governments to look anew at the issue to see how we can work towards ending the practice. Moving on from reliance on animal testing isn’t only about animal welfare, it’s about good science.

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