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Vivisection - The Debate Today

animal animals research experiments

Today the biomedical establishment and antivivisectionists are again locked in a struggle over the appropriateness of animal experimentation. The biomedical research enterprise has become a huge endeavor in the last century; in addition, the pharmaceutical, agricultural, and cosmetics industries use many animals each year to test new products and procedures. A new wrinkle in the debate is scientists' ability to genetically engineer animals—especially mice—to either lack or to contain genes related to human disease.

Present United States law does not require detailed regulation or recording of experiments involving animals except for dogs, cats, and primates, so it is difficult to estimate how many animals are involved in total. In 1991, 108,000 dogs and 35,000 cats were used in biomedical experiments in the United States. By comparison, in England, where detailed records are kept of all animal experiments, the total number of animals used in 1990 was about 3.2 million, with roughly 16,000 being dogs and cats; so we know that the total number of animals used in experiments in the United States must be very large.

Sometimes the debate today may seem a contest between scientists who oppose all regulation and animal extremists who would deny that animal research has helped human beings at all. In 1975 animal rights activist Peter Singer's book Animal Liberation suggested that animal research is wrong not merely because it is cruel, but because animals have the same rights as humans not to suffer. This book fueled a movement that has sometimes been violent, including groups such as the Animal Liberation Front that have threatened researchers' lives and broken into and vandalized laboratories. On the other side, occasionally one may hear a scientist voicing the Cartesian opinion that animals can't feel pain, and that the goal of medical knowledge justifies any treatment of animals.

But others have voiced more moderate views that may represent a more realistic goal for the future. Animal welfare activists seek to institute safeguards against cruelty in laboratories without banning animal research. The famous English primatologist Jane Goodall, while recognizing the importance of primate research for human health, has argued that our growing understanding of animal intelligence demands more humane conditions in laboratories—especially for highly intelligent animals such as chimpanzees.

Both scientists and laypeople have played an important role in minimizing animal pain in research by serving on the now-required animal welfare committees at institutions engaging in government-funded research—although the political power of such committees has been claimed to vary between different institutions. And the growing use of computer simulations, tissues grown in the laboratory, and other alternatives to animal use is being hailed for its ethical as well as scientific value.

But in the end, it seems unlikely that animal research will either be abolished or will continue without further regulation. Research alternatives, while helpful, must be compared to the real thing in order to be validated: for instance, the safe testing of drugs will continue to require large numbers of animals, even when alternatives are also used. On the other hand, many animal welfare activists note that instances of cruelty and broken regulations continue to be discovered at some laboratories, and that vast numbers of animal experiments in the cosmetics and agricultural industries are hardly regulated at all.

In the end, the question may be as enduring as human beings' ability to view the same event in very different ways. The value of animal experimentation to human health and knowledge is not seriously in doubt. But past "scientific" beliefs—such as that animals cannot feel pain; that an animal rendered motionless by anesthesia cannot feel pain; and that higher animals such as dogs and primates cannot feel anxiety and fear—have been overturned by increased scientific understanding.



Orlans, F. Barbara. In the Name of Science: Issues in Responsible Animal Experimentation. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Paton, William. Man and Mouse: Animals in Medical Research. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Rupke, Nicolaas A., ed. Vivisection in Historical Perspective. Kent, England: Croom Helm Ltd., 1987.


Goodall, Jane. "A Plea for the Chimps." The New York Times Magazine (May 17, 1987): 108-120.


"The New Research Environment." Video recording. Washington, DC: The Foundation for Biomedical Research, in cooperation with the Association of American Medical Colleges and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, 1987.

Kenneth B. Chiacchia

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