The Ethics of Testing on Animals

Miriam Wells in Vice News:

ImagesSubjecting a small number of highly sentient beings to a horrible life and death is necessary to reduce the suffering and death of huge numbers of others. Some “survival of the fittest” also comes into it — given that human beings are the most sentient of all, and highest up on the food chain — we experiment on those below us. Over 70,000 non-human primates were used for research in the United States in 2010, according to the US Department of Agriculture. They include macaques, baboons, marmosets, and other monkeys, as well as some chimpanzees. Around 65,000 dogs, 21,000 cats, and 53,000 pigs were used, as well as hundreds of thousands of rabbits, guinea pigs, and hamsters. Around the world, dogs, cats, and primates together account for less than 0.2 percent of research animals, according to scientific lobby group Understanding Animal Research, which also points out the number of animals used for medical testing is miniscule compared to the number of animals bred and slaughtered for meat consumption. Mice, rats, fish, and birds account for the majority, with around 25 million used in US laboratories a year, while estimates for the number of animals used annually around the world vary from 60 to 115 million.

After speaking to people on either side of the debate, it was interesting how much they had in common — everyone agrees that testing on animals is deeply unpleasant, that it would be better if animals were not used, and that phasing out the use of animals in medical research is the ultimate goal. What the animal rights advocates and the scientists disagree on is how much benefit medical animal testing has brought, how fast animals should be phased out, and how they should be treated in the meantime. “People automatically assume that primates are a better model [for medical research] because they're so similar to us,” Kathleen Conlee, vice president of the US-based NGO Humane Society, told VICE News. “But the differences are enormous when you come to their biology. When it comes to the immune system that's where the greatest differences are and that's often what we're studying.” Nearly 90 vaccines that had promising results in primates have failed in clinical trials in humans, said Conlee, adding that very few detailed scientific studies on the scientific value of primate use had ever been conducted. One of the only major US studies, the Institute of Medicine and National Research Council's landmark 2011 report, Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research: Assessing the Necessity, concluded that “chimpanzees are not necessary for most biomedical research,” and that there were very few cases where chimpanzee research offered valuable enough insights to “offset the moral costs” of the experiments. The Humane Society is now pushing for a similar study to be done on research involving other primates. “Animals models are always very crude and aren't giving us the answers we need,” said Conlee. “They are always going to have limitations, whereas non-animal models will only continue to improve. So why do we continue to put such a huge investment in these animal models, and very little in alternatives?”

More here.