Animal testing is one of the most contentious forms of animal exploitation. Cosmetic testing is easy to dismiss outright, as the idea that skincare products and make-up are important enough items to require animals to endure horrific cruelty and death is a difficult one to defend. You will find that most people profess to oppose animal testing for cosmetic purposes, though despite this belief, relatively few people actually put it into practice by boycotting animal testing brands. Medical and scientific testing, however, remains a far more complex and nuanced issue. 

While there are regulations in place in most countries for the use of animals in experiments, these animals are not generally subject to the same animal welfare laws that animals outside of a laboratory setting benefit from. This means that so long as the experiment is judged necessary, the amount of suffering inflicted as a result is considered justified so long as the results are deemed to be useful and that steps have been taken to reduce pain where possible. There is no hard limit on what can be done to animals and no specific practices that are outlawed; researchers can do almost anything to laboratory animals so long as the results are considered desirable enough. 

Few people argue that the experiments animals are subjected to are kind, what is generally argued is that they are a ‘necessary evil.’ Before we even get to ethical considerations though, we should acknowledge that the animal testing model of research is deeply flawed. Currently, 9 out of 10 experimental drugs which pass animal trials go on to fail in clinical studies on humans, simply because we cannot accurately predict how drugs will behave in humans based solely on animal studies. Part of the problem is that animals are not susceptible to many of the diseases that humans are, so these diseases must be artificially induced. This often doesn’t give us a reliable measurement of how organically caught diseases will respond to treatment – human cell tissue often provides a more accurate picture. To use cancer as an example, Fran Visco, founder of the National Breast Cancer Coalition said:

“Animals don’t reflect the reality of cancer in humans. We cure cancer in animals all the time, but not in people.”

 It is widely accepted that animal experiments have serious limitations, since results in humans cannot always be accurately predicted from results in animals. A mixture of high dosage, artificial introduction of diseases and stress conditions of animals in confinement means there are simply too many variables to gain reliable results. Despite this flawed methodology, the fact that we have made significant scientific advancements from animal testing is undeniable. The issue, then, is how we weigh animal interests against human interests. In the context of potentially life-saving research, many people are willing to concede that the interests of our own species must be placed higher than the interests of other species, out of some notion of the unique inherent value and importance of human life. 

Many people are also happy to admit that they value the lives of their own species over the lives of those they consider ‘lesser’ species, even when those species are relatively close to us, as is the case with chimpanzees used in research. People generally acknowledge that the harm caused to animals is significant, but argue that the ends justify the means. This is the basis upon which research organisations, ethics boards and animal welfare groups justify animal testing as well, arguing for a ‘harm-benefit’ analysis where the gains of the experiment are measured against the expected harm to laboratory animals.

Drugs developed from animal testing, it is argued, could save millions of human lives and therefore it justifies the deaths of the few thousand animals who had to be ‘sacrificed’ for their development. This is a simple utilitarian calculation of the harm caused versus the benefits gained; the benefits gained are more significant than the amount of harm caused, therefore it is ethically justified. The problem with this line of thinking can be demonstrated more starkly if we reformulate the dilemma to include human victims of experimentation. If it became legal to subject unwilling, innocent human beings to horrific experiments, would we still think it justified to sacrifice the few for the many?  

The consequences for accepting such a cold, mathematical way to determine ethics would lead to us having to defend all sorts of horrific acts, so long as they are judged to benefit the majority. Culling members of the public who are considered a drain on funds or resources, experimenting on ‘undesirable humans,’ forced sterilisation to control the population – all of these cases would involve suffering for the few to justify potential gains for the many, but for most of us these acts would be abhorrent. 

Part of the problem is that the interests of animals are not at all factored into the harm-benefit analysis. This analysis is performed on the basis of benefits to us, in how these experiments could further our interests. The counter to these interests is the harm inflicted upon the animals in order to achieve the desired results, but no meaningful weighing takes place between the interests of the animals and our own. It is assumed that only the human animal has interests and that the purpose of other animals is to fulfil those interests, even at the expense of their own wellbeing or even their lives – so long as the benefits to humans are significant enough. A true harm-benefit analysis would weigh the like interests of one species against the like interests of another and count them equally.

If an experiment would equally compare one species’ interest in being alive with another species’ desire to avoid discomfort, that research obviously would not be performed. Yet in the world of animal experimentation, if a drug treats the discomfort of the indigestion in humans but requires potentially hundreds of animals to suffer and die to provide it, the fact that the interests of the animals (being alive) is of a higher order than the interests of the humans who benefit from the drug (being indigestion-free) does not seem to matter at all.

What does this say about how we value animal interests against human ones? Primarily, there is the inherent assumption that human lives are just de facto more important than animal lives, which is an assumption that few who argue for it are able to justify to a satisfactory degree. On what basis can we argue that human lives are just inherently more important than animal lives?

While arguments for human intelligence are often put forward, the problems with judging the value of a life based on their intelligence have already been discussed. Once this is abandoned, the argument for animal testing becomes something more like ‘human lives are so important that it is justified to sacrifice the lives of other animals so long as that sacrifice brings benefits to humans, regardless of the suffering inflicted upon animals.’ This reasoning, the idea that some lives matter less than others, has been the basis for oppressive systems for thousands of years, and is perhaps one of the most harmful assumptions in the history of humankind. 

We have used logic like this to enslave one another, allowed millions to starve, committed genocide and let refugees drown off the coasts of our countries – because their lives ‘do not matter as much as ours.’ The assertion that it is justified for the few to suffer for the many has been responsible for some of the most abhorrent atrocities to have ever been committed, the moment we begin to weigh immoral acts against the benefits we can gain from performing them we have given up on any notion of compassion or the immutable value of life. Animals, like humans, are ends in and of themselves. Animals have intrinsic value separate from the commercial or practical value they have for humans; they are not the means to achieve some good on behalf of another species.

Advocates of animal testing want to present a notion of animal testing as a necessary evil and present us with the false dilemma that we must either subject animals to cruel experiments or fail to save human lives with research and treatments. This is highly misleading, since reliable alternatives to animal testing exist, opposing animal research does not mean you have to oppose research itself. It may be true that animal testing was our only option once, and that we have made a great deal of progress because of it, but with many organisations making significant achievements without it that is no longer the case – many experts are already advocating full replacement of all animal experiments.160 When a ‘necessary evil’ can no longer be labelled a necessity, what then, are we left with?

The argument for animal testing relies on a highly selfish understanding of the value of life, and an outright dismissal of the greater interests of animals. We do not need to be willing to sacrifice human progress in order to free animals from a life of exploitation and pain. We just need to be willing to make a concerted effort as a species to move away from our brutal treatment of animals and towards more compassionate research. Science should work for the benefit of all species, not just our own.

“If we are not given the option to live without violence, we are given the choice to center our meals around harvest or slaughter, husbands or war. We have chosen slaughter. We have chosen war. That’s the truest version of our story of eating animals. Can we tell a new story?”

-Jonathan Safran Foer