The Morality of Animal Research (Vivisection) – Reflections From A Medical Researcher

When people argue over the use of animals in research, also called vivisection, there are those who defend the animals and those who defend the research.

The animal defenders point out the obvious suffering that researchers often inflict on animals, and contend that this cruelty is morally unjustifiable. They further argue that you cannot necessarily predict human responses on the basis of animal studies, which makes the best animal model no more than an unreliable analogy to human function. Finally, they encourage the replacement of animal testing with non-animal research techniques. In short, this group would say animal research is inaccurate, unnecessary, and cruel.

On the other side are the researchers who use animals and contend that such research is essential for science to progress and help cure disease. They assure the public that they are doing all that they can to reduce animal suffering, so long as it is avoidable. And they firmly assert that, while they recognize the limitations of animal models, there is no better alternative. They insist that when it comes to fighting disease, it is better to first test drugs and treatments on an animal, such as a dog, than on a human, such as your child. In short, this group would say animal research is minimally cruel, essential for progress in medicine and may save human lives.

Which position is correct? The answer depends on your state of mind.

I was trained in biochemistry and human medicine. In both these fields animal research is the standard, and the results of animal studies constitute the bulk of medical knowledge. I would have at one time defended animal research, since I had been told over and over by my professors, who were themselves animal researchers, how animal experiments saves human lives. If the ends justify the means, they explained, then killing dogs to save children is acceptable and necessary, even if it is distasteful. After all, we’re dealing with human life and death. Animal sacrifice was a necessary evil.

But throughout my training and research, my soul silently wept each time an animal was “sacrificed” on the alter of medicine. How could a healing profession, presumably dedicated to ending human suffering, promote a methodology that causes animal suffering? Can we trust a health care system to treat us with compassion when it shows none for helpless, innocent creatures?

Ultimately, I realized the essence of the animal research problem. Medicine is a different field from any other because it deals with life and death. When people are suffering there are extreme feelings of urgency and anxiety which may lead to extreme conclusions of what’s right and wrong. However, the ethics one uses for life and death decisions are not normal, everyday moral judgments. They are lifeboat ethics. And the conclusions you come up with on a lifeboat are not normal conclusions.

The classic example of lifeboat ethics is that you are on a boat with other people, presumably the survivors of an ocean mishap, and there is the need for some people to be sacrificed to save the others. For example, let’s say the boat can only hold 3 people without sinking, and there are 4 people on board. Lifeboat ethics asks how to decide on who should be thrown overboard to save the others. As another example, we have all heard of airplane crash survivors having to resort to cannibalism to avoid starving to death. For someone contemplating this lifeboat situation, the issue is not whether someone should to be eaten, but who should be eaten. In general terms, lifeboat ethics addresses decisions of who should be helped and who should be harmed. The belief in impending disaster unless someone is sacrificed to save the others is a basic assumption of lifeboat ethics.

Of course, if people can resort to cannibalism when faced with a life and death situation, then they will have no problem killing animals if it means saving themselves from some dreadful disease. Once they believe their lives are on the line, that they are in a lifeboat situation, then they are mentally prepared to make sacrifices in the name of survival. Animal researchers, who are the captains of this disease lifeboat, offer animal sacrifices as a substitute for human ones.

But is this really a lifeboat situation? We all face the possibility of disease and death each day as part of the normal risks of life. Is it right to call life itself a lifeboat situation?

The answer to this depends on who is answering. Fearful, negative, pessimistic people see life as a lifeboat struggle against disease and death. Cheerful, positive, optimistic people sees life as just…life.

Those in the medical research and treatment business profit most when people are fearful, anxious, and desperate. Animal researchers arguing that it’s a dog or your child are selling with fear. The medical/ pharmaceutical industry uses fear to keep people addicted to doctors and medication, willing to obey medical authority and accept its practices, including the use of animals in research. Fearful, desperate people agree to whatever the cost, financially and morally. When you are sold on the belief that you are in a lifeboat, you want salvation at any price. Meanwhile, people are kept ignorant about how their bodies work and how to prevent disease, since ignorance keeps people fearful, mystified, and sick.

Fortunately, not everyone sees life in such emergency terms. And that’s a good thing, since lifeboat ethics are a suspension of normal, decent, moral behavior. Desperate people are dangerous. They are willing to kill if it means you or them. We don’t want a society with everyone running around feeling that way. If you are not fearful to the point of being able to justify killing, then animal research will clearly seem morally wrong. Anyone with any sensitivity who has ever befriended a dog, cat, bird, mouse, or even a rat will realize that animals have feelings and can experience suffering. To any mentally healthy person, it is wrong to cause others to suffer. It shouldn’t matter what species they are. Of course, this assumes that you are not in a fearful panic, willing to do anything, even kill, if it meant saving yourself.

If we can all be decent human beings with some compassion for other creatures, then of course we should be using non-animal research methods. Animal research is only considered a standard since it has been historically used as one. It is imperfect at best. And one of its greatest shortcomings is that it blinds us to the real cause of disease, which has nothing to do with animals and everything to do with being human.

For years the World Health Organization has been saying that the greatest cause of disease and death in modern times is our lifestyle. This means our lifestyle and the culture that defines it are making us sick. Of course, you cannot model human culture in animals. It is a human phenomenon. Clearly, we can learn more about our problems by studying ourselves. By addressing our exposure to stress, chemical pollution, a toxic diet, legal and illegal drugs, alcohol, tobacco, tight clothing, electromagnetic radiation, and innumerable other cultural factors that make us sick, we can better control our health and stay off the disease lifeboat. We could prevent disease by taking responsibility for living healthfully, instead of feeling desperate and doing anything, even making a deal with the devil, to find a cure.

I left medicine to dedicate my life to the search for human lifestyle solutions to human health problems. I look at the way we treat ourselves, the environment, and the creatures with whom we share the planet. And it is clear that we live in a sick culture. We are our own worst enemy. And the only sacrifice we need to make is to be willing to give up our damaging lifestyles. We can then lead healthy and happy lives as Nature intended, even as we approach old age and, ultimately, death. For those who are cheerful, positive, and optimistic, it’s all good.

Life does not need to feel like a lifeboat. But if it does to some fearful people, then that’s their problem. It gives them no moral right to sacrifice others, human or animal, as they act out their personal lifeboat nightmares.

Sydney Ross Singer is a medical anthropologist and director of the Institute for the Study of Culturogenic Disease, located in Hawaii. His unique form of applied medical anthropology searches for the cultural/lifestyle causes of disease. His working assumption is that our bodies were made to be healthy, but our culture and the attitudes and behaviors it instills in us can get in the way of health. By eliminating these causes, the body is allowed to heal. Since most diseases of our time are caused by our culture/lifestyle, this approach has resulted in many original discoveries into the cause, and cure, of many common diseases. It also makes prevention possible by eliminating adverse lifestyle practices. Sydney works with his co-researcher and wife, Soma Grismaijer, and is the author of several groundbreaking health books.