CONSIDER THIS: A common argument in support of the systemic manipulation of animals is that humans are more intelligent; however, intelligence, sociability, or strength are not prerequisites for feeling pain. What if we were given the right to experiment on children, or individuals with a lower IQ? As recently as the first half of the 20th century, such practices were government-sanctioned in North America in the form of eugenics, which sought to genetically “purify” human populations of unwanted cultural traits. This movement wilted following World War II, but not before the forced sterilization of thousands of individuals with “undesirable” IQ, disabilities, or socioeconomic status, as well as non-consensual experimentation on racial minorities. Since we reject variations in culture or capacity as ethical grounds for human experimentation, our contrasting attitude towards animals reflects a form of prejudice – dubbed speciesism – based solely on lack of human membership. There is no ethical justification for considering pain in one organism to be less intrinsically wrong than pain in another.
Dating back to the days of the Greek scientist Aristotle, the pursuit of scientific enlightenment has always required using animals as stand-ins for human beings; without animals, many medical breakthroughs would not have been possible. As a modern-day immunologist, I also routinely use nonhuman animals such as domesticated mice, or fish removed from their natural habitats. Today, strict legal guidelines are enforced regarding the proper care, use, and “sacrifice” of these animals. However, euphemisms cannot obscure the fact that this work entails inflicting pain on other living beings. Nobody questions nowadays that invasive non-consensual experiments on humans are wrong. This raises the question of why the line is drawn between us and nonhumans. I believe that the increasing standards of care and burdens of proof for animal research are no reason for complacency and that animal testing remains fundamentally unethical.
How humans perceive animals has shifted radically from the days when animal vivisection was commonplace. Philosophers such as René Descartes (circa 17th century) considered animals to be mere machines lacking a soul – animals were mechanically reacting to a stimulus and thus incapable of experiencing pain. Such notions were likely tied into Western preconceptions of human centrism, exemplified by Aristotle’s hierarchical chain of being and subsequently espoused by Christian doctrine. This notion has persisted into modern times; before completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, scientists expected the human genome to be vastly more complex than that of mice (or even the fruit fly), an assumption that proved to be erroneous.
Today, we know that anatomy, physiology and 85% of protein-coding DNA are shared between mice and humans. Animals react to pain stimuli through increased heart rate, perspiration, and pupil dilation, the same physiological responses seen in humans. In fact, the very basis of studying animals is because of their similarity to humans, as we can mimic human diseases and study genes of shared ancestry in animals. While it is true that pain is in many ways a state of consciousness – you can only be certain of the pain you yourself experience – we choose to accept that other humans suffer because they display behaviours such as facial grimacing and wailing. Given that we see the latter behaviours in nonhumans as well, it is not far-fetched to accept that animals possess sentience, defined as a sensual experience of joy or suffering that does not require thinking or reasoning as a prerequisite.
In light of these shared pain responses, researchers nowadays adhere to strict guidelines to minimize the suffering of research animals. These guidelines were developed by Nobel Laureate Sir Peter Brian Medawar. Medawar’s seminal tissue grafting experiments in mice established immunological dogma such as memory and tolerance, yet he foresaw the pitfalls of our dependence on animals. In the 1950s, Medawar’s initiative and his consultation culminated in the Three Rs, authored by scientists William Russell and Rex Burch in 1959. These principles call for: Reducing the number of animals used; Refining protocols to alleviate experimentally unnecessary pain; and Replacing animal use with in vitro or computer models, or exchanging “more sentient animals” with those having “lower potential for pain perception”.
Today, Canadian scientists are beholden to the Tri-Council Agencies (CIHR, NSERC and SSHRC) and, by extension, the Canadian Council on Animal Care. The latter organization oversees Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUCs) and accredits universities, a requirement to receive federal funding. IACUCs in turn ensure compliance with and approve animal research protocols. Animal use protocols ensure that only the minimal number of animals required for statistically sound research will be used, and these numbers are re-assessed annually to account for changing methods or technologies. The animals that get used for research are provided with adequate food and water, and given sufficient space and “enrichment” (toys, bedding materials, or housing structures) for instinctual behaviours such as stretching and exercising. They are also monitored routinely by veterinary staff for signs of pain or disease that require immediate clinical treatment. Last year in Canada, 70% of animals were subjected to low-invasiveness experiments, requiring procedures such as blood sampling or exposure to drugs that don’t significantly alter animal physiology. However, animal use rose from 3 million in 2013 to 4.3 million in 2016. On top of the federal research budget freeze, the nature of experiments does not account for this surge, with no major changes in the annual percentage of animals used for fundamental research, medical studies or drug safety/clinical trials in the past two years. Thus, despite our infrastructure aimed at alleviating their suffering, the research community is still unduly reliant on the use of sentient nonhuman animals.
Ethically, it can be argued that harming sentient animals is akin to discriminating against select human demographics. One need only look to the late 18th century manuscript A Vindication of the Rights of [Animals], written as a parody of feminist Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Woman. This idea that the very arguments against human prejudice can be applied to animals was popularized by moral philosopher Peter Singer in his 1975 classic Animal Liberation. Singer makes no assertion that all beings are equal nor does he demand equal rights – the truth is that we are all unique and how one should be treated depends on relevant characteristics. For example, discussing the right of men to receive an abortion is preposterous because they cannot bear children. By extension, gender, sex, creed, and race are factual differences, but they do not affect one’s capacity to suffer, a common denominator amongst all humans. Peter Singer argues that “species” is as arbitrary a characteristic as any of the above and should also be rejected as a basis to inflict pain upon someone.
Thankfully, our increasing concern for animal wellbeing has led to more resources being made available to replace animal use in research. The National Institutes of Health recently awarded $15 million for the development of chips that model human tissue in 3D, with the goal to replace animal use in drug safety and clinical trials. Charitable non-profit organizations such as the Animals in Science Policy Institute, based in British Columbia, inform the public and secondary schools about animal alternatives in education. Additionally, journals exist dedicated to alternatives to animal experimentation such as the aptly named Alternatives to Animal Experimentation. On a broader societal scale, the lens through which we view other creatures has recently begun to shift. In 2008, Spain’s parliament voted in favour of granting great apes, our closest relatives, the right to life, freedom from captivity, and protection from harm. Though animals legally remain “property” in Canada (established in 1892), the 41st National Assembly of Québec unanimously passed Bill 54 in 2015, changing the status of non-research animals to “sentient beings”. Evidently, we are not indifferent to the objectification of animals.
Overall, I do not question that alternatives cannot yet mimic complex multicellular animals in my research, but I have difficulty reconciling that with the fact that our compassion extends only insofar as human interests are advanced. As we unravel language in dolphins and chickens, tool use in crows and fish, and singing and melody in mice, it becomes harder to justify the concept of human supremacy and how we treat other forms of life. If animals are similar enough to humans to use for research, this symmetry deserves ethical consideration and illustrates parallels between all forms of discrimination. I sincerely believe that our increasing compassion towards animals reflects our acceptance of humans of every attribute, and vice versa. Surely, if we can extend our sympathy across species barriers, we can surmount quarrels within our own species. Thus, what could we become, when speciesism comes undone?
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