Science vs Ethics
Animal testing pros and cons have evolved alongside science and technology. However, disputes over animal research ethics persist. Before examining current viewpoints, let’s recall the basics.
Humans have experimented on animals to improve their biomedical knowledge and healthcare capabilities for centuries. Ancient Greek physicians dissected live and dead animals to better understand organ systems. Today, animal testing is commonly used for biomedical research. Scientists also conduct animal experiments to test the safety of consumer goods like cosmetics, personal hygiene products, and household cleaners.
Estimates suggest that laboratories worldwide conduct tests on roughly 115 million animals annually, with about 26-30 million in the US. Mice make up roughly 95 percent of laboratory animals in the US. Other animals used include fish, rabbits, frogs, and non-human primates.
Regardless, ethical debates persist. Following the EU’s lead, more than 40 countries have banned — or are phasing out — animal testing for cosmetics. The US FDA doesn’t prohibit or require animal testing to ensure consumer product safety. Although, it does require animal testing in the development of medical drugs, treatments, and devices. The agency says it advocates for using the most humane methodologies available, reducing animal testing where possible, and developing effective alternatives.
Animal Testing Pros
Now, let’s explore animal testing pros and cons, starting with the pros.
First, advocates argue that animal testing produces life-saving medical benefits for humans and animals. The National Association for Biomedical Research states that “every known medical breakthrough has a basis in animal research.” Some of those medical breakthroughs include vaccines to control viral diseases, antibiotics to fight infections, and chemotherapy to cure cancers.
Secondly, animals are very biologically similar to humans. Some primates share 99 percent of their DNA with humans. Mice share 98 percent. Researchers can observe how diseases and aging develop over their shorter lifespans and use learnings to improve human healthcare.
Proponents also say that animal testing protects humans from unsafe medical treatments. One common example cited: thalidomide. More than 10,000 babies were born with deformities or heart disease after their mothers took thalidomide to suppress morning sickness in the 1950s. Some researchers argue that more extensive animal testing could have exposed this risk and stopped the drug from reaching consumers.
Lastly, a vast amount of information from centuries of animal testing already exists. Many governments, including that of the US, encourage researchers to leverage available data to reduce animal testing where possible.
Animal Testing Cons
Like abortion, animal testing raises difficult moral questions. For opponents, it’s simply unethical. They argue that animals have moral standing and inherent rights. Therefore, animals should not be forced into service by humans for their own gains.
Additionally, many animal experiments result in pain, mental distress, and death. For example, during toxicity tests, researchers expose animals to varying doses of potentially toxic chemicals. They then record adverse side effects and resulting deaths. Writing for NPR, one bioethicist states that most laboratory animals are killed at the end of the experiment.
Animal testing results don’t always translate to humans. The Conversation explains that species may absorb and process substances differently. Therefore, drugs deemed safe and effective for animals may still harm humans. As the publication notes, six healthy research volunteers experienced multi-organ failure during a 2006 clinical drug trial that followed successful animal testing.
Lastly, live animal testing can be costly and slow. Laboratories must purchase or breed animals and invest in proper housing and veterinary care for the study duration. Some animal studies can last 4-5 years. In vitro tests — on cells or tissues in test tubes or petri dishes — may offer substantial cost and time savings.
Animal Testing Pros and Cons
Public opinion on animal testing is closely divided. In 2018, Pew Research reported that 47 percent of Americans support animal testing while 52 percent oppose it. Pew also found that unlike most controversial science-related topics, no major political divide exists. Members of both parties are similarly split (50/48 for Republicans and 45/54 for Democrats) for and against animal testing.
However, left-leaning media outlet The New Republic suggests that may soon change. “As the left hardens its commitment to fighting climate change, social injustice, and rampant capitalism, the question of what to do about animals will become inescapable,” contributor Emily Atkin argues.
Regardless, the White House and Congress support bipartisan efforts to reduce animal testing by government research agencies in recent years. Former Republican President Donald Trump included language limiting animal research by the National Institutes of Health, FDA, and Veterans Affairs in his final 2020 spending bill.
Just five years prior, Congress had failed to pass the Humane Cosmetics Act, a bipartisan bill banning the use of animals in cosmetics testing. Today, five states (Maryland, California, Nevada, Illinois, and Virginia) — all democratic leaning — have passed similar prohibitions. Six more Democratic states are considering the same.