For years, mainstream and extremist organizations have waged campaigns against the use of animals. While PETA successfully deploys propaganda featuring provocative models in sexually explicit positions to denounce the use of animals for food, clothing and experimentation, other groups, such as the Animal Liberation Brigade, engage in violent (some would say terroristic) actions to disrupt animal research and scare off scientists from lines of inquiry for which the use of animal models is the state of the art.
Part of the philosophy of the anti-animal research groups is a belief in moral equivalency among species. PETA’s Ingrid Newkirk once famously said, “A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy.” Does she propose we allow people to suffer with treatable diseases because non-animal models for testing have not yet been developed? Apparently so. Newkirk also has gone on the record to say, “Even if animal tests produced a cure for AIDS, we’d be against it.” This view is out of step with the majority of Americans, who – according to the latest Gallup poll— support animal research.
Among those who regulate and support animal research, there is a very strong commitment to animal welfare. The “animal welfare” perspective contrasts with the “animal rights” view. The animal rightists want to end animal use, including research (and also eating meat, hunting, zoos, police dogs and entertainment), because they see it as inherently indefensible. Animal welfarists, on the other hand, believe animals can be used humanely, under strict rules that seek to prevent unnecessary pain and distress in research animals. They acknowledging that the animals’ lives are worthy of respect, but do not ascribe the moral status of personhood to them. The US government requires scientists to assume anything that could cause pain or distress in a human also would be painful for an animal, and they are compelled to provide analgesia and anesthesia accordingly.
Ironically, when it comes to the protection of research subjects, experiments using rats and pigs are given much greater oversight than those using human participants. As anyone in the field of animal science can tell you, there is a longer and more intense history of regulation in animal labs than ever has been applied to research conducted in human hospitals, clinics, or academic medical centers. One reason for this difference is that humans can consent to participate but animals can’t. So there is a feeling that we have a greater responsibility to protect the mouse because it is not able to object.
Fascinating, then, to contemplate what human research would be like if it were regulated like the use of animals. Every human research space would be inspected at least twice a year for everything from the level of humidity in the room to the frequency of floor cleaning and the number of candle watts of light. The number of people allowed to sit in a study waiting room would be capped to prevent crowding. A minimum number of calories of food would be provided to every human research participant each day, even for studies not related to nutrition. Environmental enrichment—in the form of engaging toys, jobs, and recreation– would be put in the budget for every clinical trial. Even mating behaviors would be tracked to optimize conditions under which human research participants could express their species-specific urge to procreate.
Of course, we don’t do any of that. Most human research studies are uncompensated and participation occurs in spite of the numerous inconveniences and risks the study subjects willingly undertake. Unlike animals bred purposefully for research, humans willingly participate out of interest, altruism, or the hope it will improve their own health. Human research participants are not guaranteed the safe housing, adequate food, fulfilling jobs, enjoyable recreation, and freedom from predators we afford to all animal research subjects. For many studies, they are not even guaranteed free treatment if the research procedures should cause an injury.
So, while animal rightists are pushing to treat animals more like humans, it’s worth considering whether human research participants are deserving of more of the rights we accord research animals. Whether or not we can agree about the use of animals in research, it seems illogical that a mouse harmed in a study is entitled to excellent veterinary care while human research participants are accorded no such equivalent right.