• Society of Bioethics and Medicine

Moral Negligence: How Animal Experimentation Runs Rampant

Written by: Ishraq Nihal

Edited by: Aisha Abid

Many of us regard animal experimentation as a necessary evil. Although it is acknowledged that harming animals is unethical, this is overlooked because of the profound utility that animal testing provides in ensuring the safety and efficacy of drugs and other chemical products. After all, opposing animal experimentation is to reject several of the wonders modern medicine has to offer. Recently developed COVID-19 vaccines have all utilized rodent and non-human primate testing in order to study the vaccines before introducing them into human populations. It would be hypocritical to receive a vaccine or even use many common household products while denouncing animal experimentation. Nonetheless, if we acknowledge that harming animals is wrong even if we do not necessarily reject the premise of animal experimentation as a whole, we ought to do our best to minimize harming animals. Unfortunately, this has historically been anything but the case.

In Animal Liberation (2009), moral philosopher Peter Singer elucidates just how carelessly animal experimentation has been employed in scientific research, particularly in the field of psychology. Singer discusses the work of Harry Harlow (1905-1981), a leading figure in psychology in his time who is now infamous for the brutality of his experiments. In one of his experiments, monkeys were reared in wire cages for months at a time in complete social isolation, finding that the monkeys suffered severe socio-emotional damage. Another experiment involved raising female monkeys in social isolation, and studying how they interacted with their children. These female monkeys that were socially isolated did not have normal sex drives, so they were made pregnant by a technique referred to as a “rape rack.” When the babies were born, the mothers were found to ignore them, failing to exhibit normal mother-infant relationships, and in some cases even viciously harm them: “The other monkeys were brutal or lethal. One of their favorite tricks was to crush the infant’s skull with their teeth. But the really sickening behavior pattern was that of smashing the infant’s face to the floor, and then rubbing it back and forth.” Other experiments by Harlow had to do with inducing depression in animals. He and fellow researchers developed a device referred to as a “well of despair,” essentially a chamber that monkeys were trapped in for several days a time, finding that such confinement produced “severe and persistent psychopathological behavior of a depressive nature,” where even after release the monkeys would merely sit and clasp their arms around their bodies idly instead of moving around and exploring as they normally do. While Harlow’s experiments were justified in the name of “science,” they were not conducted for any human benefit, and even at the time many questioned their purpose since destroying the social life of a social animal would predictably have severe consequences, and analogous research had already been conducted with children; primarily war orphans and refugees. Nonetheless, since Harlow began his deprivation experiments, over 250 such experiments have been conducted, also with little to no goal or rationale.

One may single out psychological experimentation as being needlessly harmful to animals, but claim that experimentation in other fields is worthwhile and justified. Animal experimentation is widely used in toxicology studies to determine the safety of potentially life saving drugs, and it is also widely used in studies for products like cosmetics, food coloring, and floor polishes. The LD50 is a commonly employed acute toxicity test, shorthand for “lethal dose 50 percent,” which tests the amount of substance required to kill half the animals in a study. At lower concentrations of chemicals, animals may already be visibly sick and in distress, but the chemicals nonetheless will be force-fed to them in ridiculously high concentrations until half of them are dead. Singer says that since the purpose of the test is to determine the concentration at which half the animals die, suffering animals are “not put out of misery for fear of producing inaccurate results.” While the LD50 is used as a standard to which the toxicity of a chemical can be measured, it has little relevance to how humans will use a product given we would not use the extreme concentrations employed in the testing. Toxicity tests also generally do not even carry over well between different species. Singer notes several drugs that were unexpectedly harmful to humans because of its extensive testing in animals before public release. Opren, for example, a treatment for arthritis from a British pharmaceutical company, passed “all the useful animal tests,” but was suspended after several deaths and thousands of reports of adverse reactions from its users. It would seem then that the toxicology data animal testing provides us is not completely reliable.

While there is a real need for animal experimentation to protect humans from hidden dangers, our current use of it is unjustifiably excessive. Several steps have been taken over the years to reduce our use of animal experimentation, but overall it is a largely unregulated field. Alternatives to animal testing must be investigated, and existing ethical guidelines need to be strengthened and rigorously enforced. Animal testing contributes to the dismissal of the fact that animals, like humans, are sentient beings capable of feeling pain. We must be cautious with animal testing, trying our best to eliminate as much needless suffering from this world as possible.

Singer, Peter. Animal Liberation: The Definitive Classic of the Animal Movement. Harper Perennial, 2009.