This afternoon I read Animal Research: Animal Welfare vs. Animal Rights, by Walter Jessen of Highlight Health. The article addressed some myths about animal research, explaining why it is necessary and what we do to maintain the health of research animals. In many ways, it was a typical volley in the debate between scientists and animal rightists about animal research.
I have issues with the arguments used by both sides of this debate, which miss a lot of shades of gray in the question about whether it is wrong to perform research on animals. The article ably addressed some of the myths and mis-framings presented by the animal rights side of the debate. That is important communication to provide. However, it introduced some mis-framings of its own, and I’d like to address those here, while recognizing that the article is completely factually correct.
Animal rights vs. animal welfare
Jessen starts by defining his terms (“animal rights” and “animal welfare”). He chooses the most extreme position for animal rightists, describing them as people who “reject eating any animal as food, abstain from taking any over-the-counter drug and/or prescription medication, and refuse all vaccinations and/or medical treatment.”
In my experience, that description characterizes a truly extreme group. It leaves out those who take a more graded approach, such as a belief that animals shouldn’t be eaten, but may be used in some forms of research. This may be an attempt to frame the argument in terms of scientists versus fringe crazies. What about the people who fit in neither camp? Isn’t that where most of us lie, accepting medical treatments but feeling somewhat uncomfortable about animal research? Can’t scientists address that discomfort without resorting to the suggestion that anyone who feels that animal research may be wrong must reject all medical treatment?
Immoral and necessary
Jessen argues that animal research is necessary because “animal systems provide invaluable and irreplaceable insights into human systems.” That is completely true (and I would add that animal research provides invaluable and irreplaceable insights into animal systems as well. It isn’t only useful in human medicine). Jessen doesn’t go so far as to say that because animal research is necessary, choosing to perform it is also moral. But that seems to me to be the point of his article: we don’t need to feel bad about this; this is necessary. But just because something is necessary doesn’t mean we should be completely comfortable with it. Can’t animal research be both necessary and immoral? Can’t we choose as a society to do it without absolving ourselves from feeling disturbed by it? When we read about an interesting experiment that involved animal research, can’t we think how cool the results are and how we feel sorry for the animals?
A mountain climber is stranded in a snowstorm. Help won’t come for days. His companion dies. Our hero eats his friend so that he won’t starve to death himself. Immoral, but necessary. He does it, and he knows it is the right choice. But he feels terrible about doing it. Perhaps he will take care to provide for his companion’s children.
A single mother in a country that does not have welfare loses her job through no fault of her own. Her savings are gone. She loses her home. Living on the street, she steals food to give her children. She knows it is wrong, and she feels bad about it. But she also knows it’s the right choice.
Recently I had elective surgery. After the surgery, I chose to use painkillers that surely had been tested on animals. I know that animal research is wrong, and I feel bad about it. But I also know that it is the right choice to continue to learn about how to keep humans and animals healthy.
The debate about animal research is often presented as two choices: it’s wrong, and we should never do it; or it is necessary, so we shouldn’t feel bad about it. We should feel bad about it. And we should continue to do it. (But we should do it somewhat differently than we do now. Read on.)
Are research animals comfortable?
Jessen writes that “the vast majority of biomedical research does not result in significant discomfort or distress to research animals.” I think he is addressing the misconception that research animals spend the majority of their lives in a great deal of pain, and wants to make the point that they are kept mostly pain-free. However, he writes that “57 percent of all research procedures with animals involved no more than slight or momentary pain or distress.” I note that that leaves 43 percent of procedures that do involve more than momentary pain or distress. That’s a significant fraction.
He also writes that “thirty-eight percent of the research procedures employed anesthesia and post- operative painkillers.” I should hope that painkillers were employed where indicated! But I also would like to point out that painkillers don’t remove all the pain. Would you choose to undergo an unnecessary surgery if you were offered the best possible pain relief afterwards? What if you were offered the surgery but had to recover in a hospital where no one spoke your language, and you had no way of requesting more painkillers if the standard dose was not enough for you?
I’d also like to move the discussion away from pain, which both sides of the debate are (in my opinion) overly focused on. Pain is sometimes necessary in research. What isn’t always necessary is keeping animals in cramped quarters lacking environmental enrichment. I have seen facilities where the mice and rats lack even an exercise wheel, and where there are multiple animals in a cage so small I wouldn’t feel comfortable keeping even a single pet rat in it. That’s not necessary; that’s a choice, due to the fact that more space and more enrichment is expensive.
Again, I don’t think the argument has to be so black and white. We don’t have to argue that research animals are in constant, excruciating pain (because that is untrue). But we can also admit that research animals do often (possibly 43 percent of the time) experience pain as part of the research process. We can feel bad about that, but still do it, because the alternative is so unthinkable. And we can accept that if we’re asking these animals to give up their lives, we don’t also need to ask them to live in such unenriched environments. They require mental stimulation just like we do. If they were so different from us, we wouldn’t be using them to model us.
The indifference of researchers
Jessen argues that “researchers are deeply concerned about the condition of the animals they study.” I agree. Researchers aren’t unfeeling monsters, and I wish that the people arguing on the other side of this divide would stop trying to make them out to be.
However, I think researchers often (not always, but often) subscribe to the black and white version of this particular moral dilemma: it is necessary, so I don’t need to feel bad about it. I have every respect for and sympathy with someone who is living day in, day out with animals that they know will die at the end of the experiment. It would be easier if the cages were big enough, if the animals didn’t lack enrichment, if the painkillers were always sufficient and took away all the pain, if the animals had some place to go after non-terminal experiments. But despite my sympathy for the research community, I would like to see a little more effort on their part to address some welfare issues, and to recognize the moral difficulties inherent in animal research. I do think that it is possible to do animal research, and still sympathize with the viewpoint of people out there who find the idea of animal research disturbing. It should be disturbing. Even though it is necessary.
Am I saying that everyone who benefits from animal research should be guilt-stricken all the time? Of course not. That wouldn’t be very productive. I am saying we should recognize the shades of grey. And that, as a society, we should feel bad enough about animal research to make improving lab animal welfare more of a priority. More of the money that goes to research could go to making the lives of research animals more comfortable. (If a pet rat lives in a bigger cage, so should a research rat!) If they are giving their lives for us, and we recognize that that is wrong, we should also recognize that it is our responsibility to make their lives not just as pain free as possible, but as good as possible. We’re doing a decent job on the former. I don’t think we are working anywhere near hard enough on the latter.