The use of live animals in research is a question that continues to divide and trouble us, provoking heated debate on the rights and wrongs of experimenting on animals. Over 150 million animals are subjected to experimentation each year across the globe and April 24th is the World Day for Laboratory Animals. It was established in 1979 by the British National Anti-Vivisection Society (NAVS) to lobby for an end to the use of animals in research. The day is recognised by the United Nations and commemorated on every continent of the world to highlight the suffering of animals in experiments. This day also attracts attention from scientific groups defending the use of animals in research and they condemn the violence and harassment that is sometimes directed towards scientists who carry out research on live animals.
So why do scientists use animals in research? The usual answer is that they use animals to learn more about health problems that affect both humans and animals, and to assure the safety of new medical treatments. Medical researchers need to understand health problems before they can develop ways to treat them. Some diseases and health problems involve processes that can only be studied in a living organism. Animals are necessary to medical research when it is impractical or unethical to use humans.
However, there is demonstrated evidence of the failures of the animal model. For example: forcing dogs to inhale cigarette smoke did not show a link to lung cancer; Flosint, an arthritis medication, tested safe in monkeys but caused deaths in humans; and the recalled diet drug fen-phen caused no heart damage in animals, while it did in humans. In an attempt to overcome the limitations of animal models, some researchers have taken genetically engineering animals, by removing or adding genes they believe relate to specific human diseases. The underlying assumption here is that these new, genetically constructed animals, will be more human-like. This technology is commonly used in mice and rats and the number of genetically altered (transgenic) animals being produced for research has grown exponentially over the past ten years.
The use of animals in research, teaching and testing is an important ethical and political issue. Much of the discussion about this issue revolves around the relative value, often referred to as the ‘moral value’, of humans and animals. When the needs of animals and humans come into conflict, which takes precedence?
Today there exists a wide spectrum of views on this subject, ranging from those concerned with animal rights to those who view animals only as an expendable resource to be exploited. It is a complex and emotive issue but an important one for us to discuss and to be clear about whether we need to continue to experiment on animals or not.