In front of me the rat lies anesthetized, its back shaved and swabbed with a sterile chemical, my scalpel poised and ready to make the first incision. As a research assistant in a study designed to examine the effects of cocaine on the nervous system, one of my duties is to implant a catheter into the jugular vein of the laboratory animals, allowing for administration of the drug. Although significant steps are taken to eliminate the pain and discomfort of the experimental subjects, every surgery I perform leaves me wondering about the morality of animal research.
Exposed to a gaseous anesthetic and injected with a powerful analgesic painkiller, the rats feel nothing during the procedure. However, this is not the only discomfort that our particular research model will expose them to and eventually their lives will end at the hands of experimenters. It is a truth that much of the research performed on animals requires that the subjects be exposed to significant harm before their inevitable deaths. Stringent standards of care direct researchers to do all in their power to ease the suffering of animal subjects, but the nature of research often makes some level of suffering unavoidable.
And yet, after much consideration, I find myself in staunch support of animal research. The central premise of my argument is simply stated: Animal research saves human lives. There are many examples of this maxim; since my research pertains to pharmacology, I will take a few cases from that field.
Modern medication is of a caliber previously unimagined. It has improved and outright saved the lives of millions. A medication affects the body through a complex series of chemical interactions, and while some of these constitute the desired effect, others are entirely negative. Some medicines are lethal in high doses, others can do permanent damage if taken improperly. Animal research is integral to the discovery of the potentially dangerous side effects of a substance. Antibiotics, antidepressants, anticonvulsants and anesthetics; an accurate assessment of the safety of these medications could only have been attained through potentially lethal testing on biological subjects. The removal of the animal stage in the research process would have made it impossible to determine many drugs safe for human consumption. Without animal research, these drugs would have remained in experimental limbo and been denied to patients whose lives depend on them.
The above facts are enough to justify the use of animals in potentially painful experimental designs. Nevertheless, there are those who would disagree, believing that this aspect of medical inquiry is unjustifiable. True adherence to this extreme position is very difficult, if not impossible, to attain in order to live a life from the death of an animal, including in the manner of a patient in need of treatment. To condemn a thing while profiting from it is a high level hypocrisy. If an individual is to truly denounce animal experimentation he must forsake the use of all medications whose development necessarily included research on animal subjects.
A believer in animal rights might counter my argument by claiming that not all animal research yields the kind of practical gains described above. Indeed, a good deal of this research is performed at a more abstract level, using animals to generate knowledge that has no direct clinical application. Why not, an animal rights activist might ask, eliminate the suffering of animals in vane, using animal research only when we can be assured of its utility? This question stems from an under-nuanced conception of the process of science. Throughout scientific history, abstract research has lead to practical gains. Although the usefulness of a study might not be foreseeable at the onset, the knowledge gleaned could prove invaluable in some previously unseen way. Abstract research has provided the basis for the lifesaving clinical applications that characterize modern medicine. To remove abstract research would be to stall out the scientific process, rendering impossible the advances that have saved the lives of so many.
The prevention of animal testing would mean losing so much of what has been achieved by modern medicine. It would mean the avoidable loss of human life.
Justin Moscarello is a senior physical anthropology major.