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Animal Testing:

The issue:

Is it immoral to conduct painful and often deadly medical and scientific experiments on animals? Or do the benefits of animal testing outweigh any ethical concerns?

Table of Contents:

  • Summary of Arguments

  • What Is Animal Testing?

  • Public Opinion Drives Animal-Testing Laws

  • Supporters Argue That Animal Testing Is Necessary

  • Animal Testing Morally Wrong, Opponents Say

  • Common Ground in the Animal-Testing Debate?

GT students must read all sections of the article. On-grade level students must read the underlined sections and may read the additional sections.

Directions: Use the article below to complete your Contemporary Issue Research Notes. Highlight key facts that represent arguments “for” and “against.”

Summary of Arguments

The issue: Is it immoral to conduct painful and often deadly medical and scientific experiments on animals? Or do the benefits of animal testing outweigh any ethical concerns?

  • Supporters of animal testing say: Animal testing has been a crucial step in the development of countless new medical techniques and technologies. Proposed alternatives to animal testing are simply ineffective and produce substandard results.

  • Critics of animal testing say: Some of the experiments conducted on animals are cruel and painful, and nearly every animal tested is killed following the procedure. Because the experiments are often carried out in stressful environments, much of the data acquired are not reliable anyway.

Every year, an estimated 30 million animals are used in biomedical experiments and research projects. Rats, mice, guinea pigs, dogs, monkeys and rabbits are just a few of the types of animals used by private companies and universities to test the safety of drugs and other newly developed products. The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) requires that all newly developed drugs, both over-the-counter and prescription, be tested on animals before being approved for human consumption. [See 1996 Animal Testing]

Animal testing is a big business in the U.S. So-called breeding companies, such as the Wilmington, Mass.-based Charles River Laboratories Inc., create genetically modified laboratory animals, which they sell to universities, drug companies and medical research firms. In fiscal year 2004, Charles River Labs reported a net income of nearly $90 million. The company offers lab rodents at prices ranging from around four dollars to upwards of $200 for specially engineered diabetic mice.

Many animal rights activists oppose the use of animals in medical research, arguing that it is cruel and morally indefensible. Animals used in research are often subjected to conditions that cause them "pain and distress," in the words of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees animal research. U.S. law requires that researchers administer painkillers to lab animals unless those drugs would skew the results of the test. However, mice, rats and birds--which comprise more than 90% of the animals tested in the U.S.--are exempt from that requirement. Nearly all animals used for research purposes are killed after the experiments are over.

Is animal testing a necessary component of biomedical research? Or should it be abolished on the grounds that it is unethical and perhaps even scientifically irrelevant?

Supporters of animal testing argue that society as a whole has benefited immensely from such research, and will continue to do so for years to come. Animal testing has been a critical step in ensuring the safety of scores of new pharmaceuticals and medical procedures, they argue.

Advocates also maintain that it is morally justified to use animals in sometimes dangerous and painful experiments because they contribute to the greater good. Proposed alternatives to animal testing--including experiments performed using tissue samples, cell cultures and computer modeling--have not proven to be useful or accurate, they argue.

Animal testing's opponents, however, contend that human beings have an ethical responsibility to treat animals with respect. People involved in animal testing exploit animals as though they were objects, subjecting them to extreme pain and suffering, opponents maintain.

Many foes of animal rights also argue that animal testing has little to no scientific merit. The bodily functions of rats, for example, are vastly different from those of human beings, they say. Therefore, most data collected by animal researchers are basically useless, resulting only in the painful deaths of scores of defenseless animals, opponents assert.

What Is Animal Testing?

Human beings have long conducted scientific experiments on animals in an attempt to learn more about the inner workings of their own bodies. The ancient Greek physician Galen routinely dissected living animals--a practice known as vivisection--to study their nervous, respiratory and digestive systems. Although much of his scientific "discoveries" would later be disproved, Galen's vivisection experiments on pigs, apes and dogs proved to be highly influential among the ancient Greeks.

Since then, countless examples of animal testing have produced far more significant scientific gains, particularly in the field of genetics. While working for the Department of Agriculture, famed geneticist Sewall Wright published a series of scientific papers in 1921 regarding inherited traits in guinea pigs. Wright devised animal-breeding techniques that geneticists still use.

Many other examples of animal testing have had long-lasting scientific effects. Dogs were used in experiments relating to artificial insemination in the 18th century. Much later, in the 1950s, two researchers at the Worcester Foundation for Experimental Biology in Massachusetts used both dogs and rabbits in pioneering work leading to the development of the first birth-control pill. And, in perhaps the most famous example of animal experimentation in the last several decades, Scottish medical researchers successfully cloned a sheep in 1996. "Dolly," the first cloned mammal in human history, became world-famous after being unveiled in 1997.

Animals are widely seen as useful subjects for medical experimentation because they are so genetically similar to human beings. Researchers affiliated with the Human Genome Project, a research project that created a working model of the human genome (the sequence of base parts of all the human genes) in 2004, say that rodents--particularly mice--are nearly identical to human beings in their genetic composition. Rodents such as mice, rats and guinea pigs comprise roughly 95% of the animals used in biomedical research. The remaining 5% includes monkeys, fish, birds, cats, dogs and many others, although testing on larger animals and domesticated species has plummeted in the last several decades.

Some animal research invariably requires lab animals to experience moderate to severe pain. Researchers at the University of Buffalo in New York, for example, have infected hamsters with the debilitating schistosomiasis parasite in order to develop a more effective treatment. At the University of California in San Francisco, one researcher implanted metal coils into the eye sockets of monkeys in order to study eye movement. In that case, test monkeys were restrained for up to eight hours.

The fact that most lab animals are killed, combined with the pain often inflicted during the testing, has led some animal researchers to admit that they sometimes experience a certain amount of mental anguish in the workplace. Anneke Keizer-Zucker, a researcher at a Pennsylvania consulting group, said that participating in animal testing was initially "tough to get used to" and that she would often come home from work "mentally exhausted." Keizer-Zucker told the Seattle Times in 2003 that she was training to become a certified grief counselor to aid fellow animal researchers who are experiencing similar anxieties about their jobs.

New approaches to animal testing have been developed as the science behind it continues to evolve. So-called knockout mice are genetically altered to conform to the parameters of a given experiment; for example, certain genes can be "knocked out" from a mouse's genetic makeup to produce diabetes in mice. Knockout mice are far costlier than normal mice. Generally speaking, the larger an animal is, the more money it costs. Monkeys used in animal testing have fetched upwards of $3,000.

Not surprisingly, animal testing is a multibillion-dollar industry in the U.S. Companies supplying animals, such as Charles River Labs, make high yearly profits, as do private firms that conduct the research, including Britain's Huntingdon Life Sciences. Also, the National Institutes of Health, a government agency specializing in medical research, spends billions of dollars in federal money each year for its animal testing program.

Public Opinion Drives Animal-Testing Laws

Unquestionably, a great many scientific breakthroughs have resulted directly from animal testing. Many new vaccines and surgical procedures have been directly derived from experimentation on animals and, as journalist John Cook notes in the online magazine Salon, "There is virtually no new drug--from Viagra to Prozac to Claritin--that has been brought to market in recent decades without a large number of animals dying in the process."

Because of the untold quantity of animals killed in animal testing, however, many people have come to oppose the practice. Polls show that a significant number of Americans have mixed feelings toward the practice--particularly when household pets such as cats and dogs are used in the experiments, or when the experiments are perceived as being of no scientific importance.

In the mid-1960s, when public concern about animal welfare was reaching a crescendo, President Lyndon Johnson (D, 1963-69) signed into law the Animal Welfare Act (AWA). That legislation established the USDA as the federal department in charge of the transport, handling and housing of certain species of animals used for scientific purposes.

Animal-rights activists, however, decried the AWA in its original incarnation, arguing that it did not give the USDA enough power to actually enforce the proper treatment of animals. They also protested the act's limited definition of "animals" as dogs, cats, primates, guinea pigs, hamsters and rabbits, pointing out that those species actually comprised just a small percentage of animals used for research purposes.

Amendments to the act were passed in 1970, expanding the number of animal species protected by the AWA, as well as requiring that tested animals be administered painkillers unless the drugs would compromise a given experiment's results. However, mice, rats and birds--the animals most commonly used in scientific research--continued to be excluded from the AWA's terms, due to an executive decision by the USDA's administration.

Media coverage of animal-rights abuses in the mid-1980s sparked another public surge of protest against animal testing. Sweeping amendments to the AWA were enacted in 1985. Scientific facilities that handled lab animals had to begin to take extra steps to ensure those animals' "psychological well-being." Additionally, a regulatory body known as the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee was established, along with practical guidelines for periodic inspections of animal-testing labs. The 1985 amendments further expanded the federal definition of "pain and distress" in relation to animal testing.

Those revisions were widely hailed as a major improvement to the AWA. However, many animal-rights activists argued that they still did not go far enough, particularly because mice, rats and birds remained unprotected under the AWA's terms. Organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the Animal Liberation Front (ALF) and the Britain-based Animal Aid have all been very vocal in their opposition to animal testing both in the U.S. and around the world.

PETA has in many ways been the most successful of all the animal-rights groups, observers say. Through its media-savvy public relations techniques, including celebrity endorsements, it has achieved its goal of making Americans more aware of animal-rights issues. In 1998, for example, PETA circulated an undercover video depicting graphic animal abuse by researchers at a Huntingdon lab in New Jersey, including what appeared to be a vivisection of a monkey. The USDA fined Huntingdon $50,000 for violating the AWA.

Animal-rights groups have also helped to turn public opinion against the testing of cosmetic products on animals. Once seen as a necessary step in the development of new cosmetics, shampoos and skin care products, animal testing has been increasingly phased out of the global cosmetics industry, responding to public outrage at the practice. Although the FDA supports animal testing of cosmetic products, it does not require it for cosmetics to receive approval. In the European Union, meanwhile, a total ban on cosmetics-related animal-testing will begin to be enforced in 2009.

Animal-rights groups such as PETA have claimed much credit for the public's dim view of cosmetics-related animal testing--and rightly so, experts say. However, some animal-rights supporters have advocated--and, in some cases, participated in--acts of violence against those who participate in animal testing. Those acts range from intimidation to destruction of property to assault. Such tactics have been condemned by the movement's more moderate wing. "I don't think violence works at any level," says Anita Roddick, the founder of the anti-animal testing cosmetics company The Body Shop. "You change by dialogue, you don't change by violence. You change by example, by humor."

Some animal-rights groups routinely use the Internet to broadcast the names and addresses of anyone who, in their opinion, is associated with animal testing. Controversial animal-rights groups such as ALF and Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty have been linked to physical violence, arson and domestic terrorism. [See 2006 Huntingdon Life Sciences and the 'SHAC 7' (sidebar)]

In May 2002, the animal-rights movement as whole was dealt a blow when President Bush (R) signed into law a farm bill that included a rider amending the AWA. The Helms Amendment, named after then-Sen. Jesse Helms (R, N.C.), officially codifies the USDA's exclusion of rats, mice and birds from the AWA's terms. Animal-rights supporters unsuccessfully fought the amendment in court.

Organizations supporting animal testing--including science-professional groups such as the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science and the Foundation for Biomedical Research--lauded the Helms Amendment. They say that if rats and mice were granted protection under the AWA, research would be greatly hampered because acquiring those commonly used animals would become a bureaucratic nightmare. However, animal-rights groups--whether moderate or willing to resort to violence--say they will continue to oppose all forms of animal research.

Supporters Argue That Animal Testing Is Necessary

Supporters of animal testing argue that the practice has had a demonstrably positive impact on society as a whole. Without animal testing, researchers would have a very difficult time ascertaining the safety of drugs and most new medical procedures, advocates say. "The medical arguments for animal research are well established," writes Mick Hume in the (London) Times Online. "[I]n short, if you have ever taken a painkiller or an antibiotic you have benefited from it, and if we ever hope to see cures for cancer, HIV/AIDS or other serious diseases we will need more of it."

Historically, animal testing has had a major impact on the fields of medicine and health care, supporters assert. "Most people don't know what it took to cure polio," says Cynthia Pekow of the American Association for Laboratory Animal Science, an organization that, among other things, states that one of its goals is to "[u]se every opportunity to improve public understanding of the role of the profession of laboratory animal science." Indeed, Jonas Salk, the physician who developed a vaccine for polio in the 1950s, first tested that vaccine on as many as 10,000 animals before trying it out on human subjects.

New medical procedures and drugs require rigorous animal testing before any human testing can be permitted, advocates maintain. Responding to animal-rights activists' charges that animal testing is unethical, supporters argue that it would actually be unethical to sell pharmaceuticals that have not been previously tested on animals.

Some supporters of animal testing have argued that opponents are simply unrealistic about animals and how they should be treated by humans. Raised on cartoons and children's books depicting friendly, talking animals, most people are born into a "fluffy bunny culture" that is afraid to acknowledge the benefits of animal research, according to one researcher at Oxford University in Britain.

In actuality, many supporters argue, people should not think twice about using animals for research purposes. Ethically, there is nothing wrong with the only truly evolved species of animal on the planet using other creatures for its benefit, they contend. Additionally, they note that steps are taken to anesthetize test subjects whenever possible in animal research, and many effective laws are in place--both in the U.S. and in other countries--that protect lab animals from undue pain and suffering.

Besides, supporters maintain, if animal testing did not exist, what would the alternatives be? If animal-rights activists got their way, "people and wild animals will be the guinea pigs," says Gina Solomon of the Natural Resources Defense Council. Other proposed alternatives to animal testing, including using cell cultures, tissue samples and computer models, are simply not as effective as using living, breathing lab animals, backers maintain. Animals "are the best possible models we have short of humans, and experimenting on people is not acceptable," says Frankie Trull, the president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, an organization that supports and promotes animal testing.

Animal-testing advocates say that if diseases such as AIDS and cancer are ever to be cured, research on animals will have to continue to be an integral part of medical research around the world. In addition to AIDS and cancer, diseases such as Alzheimer's disease, muscular dystrophy and Lou Gehrig's disease may all one day be cured through treatments first tested on animals, supporters argue.

Some supporters of animal testing have portrayed those who oppose it as a fringe group that stubbornly refuses to deviate from its ideology. "Debating with the animal-rights community is kind of a waste of breath," Trull says. "You're not going to convince people who make comments like, 'Even if animal research meant a cure for AIDS we'd be against it,'" she adds. Some have accused animal-testing opponents of presenting willfully distorted facts and statistics in order to paint a negative picture of animal research.

Supporters of animal testing also decry the occasionally violent tactics used by some animal-rights activists. Backers maintain that the anti-animal research contingent sometimes goes too far in expressing its opposition. Those threatening actions have had a chilling effect on the large community of scientists that defends animal research; many have become afraid to speak out and show their support for fear that they or their families will be targeted by animal-rights extremists, advocates contend. Consequently, the pro-animal testing camp has gotten minimal media coverage, while groups opposed to the practice make headlines on a daily basis, backers assert.

Acknowledging that such extremists are a fringe group at best, supporters such as Fiona Fox of Britain's Science Media Center have argued that pro-animal research scientists should make their voices heard. "If all the scientists who use animals in research, and those of us who support their use, agreed to speak out, the extremists would be drowned out by tens of thousands of voices," she writes.

Animal Testing Morally Wrong, Opponents Say

Opponents of animal testing contend that it is morally wrong for humans to assert their dominance over animals by exploiting them in animal testing. The anti-animal research movement is "the ultimate liberation free all individuals, irrespective of race, gender or species," says ALF's Robin Webb. "It's about respect for the individual. Each individual should be allowed to live their life in the way nature intended," including animals, Webb says. The idea that all life should be valued equally--human or animal--is a common theme in the case against animal testing.

Foes of animal testing argue that laws such as the Animal Welfare Act have been watered down so much that they are virtually useless. They note that mice, rats and birds--the animals exempt from the act's provisions--comprise about 90% of all the animals used for testing in the U.S., and therefore have little or no legal protection from the often excruciating conditions of animal testing.

Opponents say that to distinguish between regular animals and so-called lab animals is to denigrate animal life as a whole. Supporters of animal testing "believe there is a species of animal called the 'laboratory animal,' and you can do anything you want with them," says the World Wildlife Fund's Richard Liroff. "There is no such species. All animals suffer when you poison them."

Some of the procedures that animal researchers perform in the name of science are cruel, unusual and sometimes sadistic, opponents contend. Some of those procedures have been known to involve forced feeding, vivisection, the administration of high doses of potent drugs and inhumane living conditions, they say. "If the American public had all the facts about what's happening to animals in labs, labs would be closed," argues Michael Budkie, the founder of the nonprofit group Stop Animal Exploitation Now!

The more painful procedures are not only ethically improper, opponents assert, they also produce results that are scientifically inaccurate. The stress of being in a laboratory environment affects animals' nervous systems, according to a 2004 position paper by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). In a lab environment, the paper states,

routine handling...[elicits] striking elevations in pulse, blood pressure and steroid hormone release that can persist for an hour or more after the event. Similarly, routine features of the laboratory environment--isolation, confinement, social disruption, noise and restrictions on physical movement--have been shown to be noxious for animals.

In other words, the stress of being the subject of testing leads to tangible changes in an animal's nervous system, therefore spoiling any data accrued in a given experiment, opponents maintain. Most animal testing is performed with humans in mind; it can actually be dangerous to use data that have been distorted by a rat's high level of stress and apply it to the human body, opponents argue.

Additionally, a 2004 paper written by scientists at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine and published in the esteemed British Medical Journal gave further reasons why animal testing might not be as scientifically useful as its supporters claim. For example, some animals used for research are biologically so different from humans that any data acquired in testing procedures on those animals is automatically suspect, the paper says. "The whole original concept [of animal testing] is a failure," says John Pippin, a cardiologist and research consultant for PCRM.

Opponents say that alternatives to animal testing are readily available, but have been ignored by the scientific community as a whole. Scientists could be using computer models of the human body to test new medical procedures, and they can use tissue samples and stem cells--cells that can be altered by scientists to become any type of cell found in the body--to test the effects of new drugs, opponents maintain. The FDA, which requires that all new drugs first be tested on animals, is behind the times--perhaps deliberately, opponents contend, due to the fact that animal testing is such a big moneymaker for the U.S.

"It's clear that if you look at the science we have much better ways of testing drugs to see whether they're going to be toxic or helpful in human beings," says Jerry Vlasak, a Canoga Park, Calif., trauma surgeon and animal rights activist. "The scientific alternatives are out there."

Common Ground in the Animal-Testing Debate?

Most scientists, however, do not agree that there are widely available alternatives to animal testing. The vast majority of the scientific community continues to insist that animal testing is necessary--at least for the time being. Many supporters of animal testing have said publicly that they, like animal-rights activists, would prefer it if they did not have to kill and harm animals in the name of science. "I hope some day there will be no need for animal research," says Wise Young, the director of neurosurgery at New York University. "[B]ut right now there is," Young adds.

Indeed, although animal testing is still widely used--and seen as necessary by most scientists--some of the alternatives mentioned by animal-rights activists are also in use. For instance, tests measuring eye and skin irritancy can often be duplicated using cell cultures and tissue samples, scientists say.

Additionally, pregnancy testing has been revolutionized by alternatives to animal testing. "Years ago, to test for pregnancy, you injected urine from the woman into a female rabbit, waited 24 hours, then killed the rabbit and examined its ovaries for a specific reaction," says Alan Goldberg, the founding director of the Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Md. "Now testing is done using monoclonal antibodies. It's done with tissue cultures. It's done in the home."

Some animal-testing supporters have acknowledged the positive influence that animal-rights activists have had on their methods. Trull, the president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, says that "animal welfarists have certainly done a good job of sensitizing researchers to the needs of the animals in their care."

It appears that both sides of the animal-testing debate would like to see animal research ultimately eliminated. The two groups differ, though, on how soon they would like to see the practice eliminated, observers say; supporters want animal testing eliminated as soon as researchers can do without it, while opponents want it eliminated right now. Still, experts say that hope is not lost for a compromise. Animal-rights activists' "final solution is to stop the use of all animals in research," says Johns Hopkins research professor Richard Traystman. "But anything short of that, they'll take."

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