Chapter  7: Human Experimentation

Section 4. Reading

 Animal Experimentation

Author:  Peter Singer  


Title:       Animal Experimentation

Publication Information:  Animal Liberation, 2nd Ed. (Random House/New York Review of Books, NY, 1990)  pp. 31-33, 40, 45-46, 48, 61-63, 65, 90-92


Summary by Nancy Weitzman (QCC, 2004)


     Who is policing the research laboratories and the results of these experiments for verifiable achievements and medical breakthroughs?

     When does research using animals cross the line into inhumane, barbaric and pointless experiments leading to the suffering and death of animal subjects?

     When are experiments on animals justifiable?


Going back to the nineteenth century, researchers have used sadistic practices and torture techniques in the name of medical breakthroughs and medical research.  These experiments have been conducted in many fields of medicine and the value of the knowledge derived is often questionable and could have been gained in other ways.  Many experiments appear to be trivial or misconceived and some have not been designed to yield benefits.


Peter Singer argues that the fundamental issue in determining how we may treat animals is whether they suffer and that the pains of animals and humans deserve equal considerations.  This argument is based on the important issue of whether they feel the pain and suffering, not whether the subjects have rights or moral claims against others.


Singer’s opponents call his position one of speciesism and reject his argument that the pleasure and pains of animals deserve consideration equal to those of humans in calculating the overall benefits of animal experiments.  Singer holds that researchers should be required to demonstrate that the benefits of their research would outweigh the suffering of the animals involved.  He recommends that ethics committees, with members representing the welfare of animals be established to oversee the experiments.  Singer maintains when experiments can be brought under the heading “medical” we are inclined to think that any suffering they involve must be justifiable because the research is contributing to the alleviation of suffering.  However, testing of therapeutic drugs is less likely to be motivated by the desire for maximum good to all than by the desire for maximum profit.  The broad label “medical research” can also be used to cover research that is motivated by a general intellectual curiosity.


There has been opposition to experimenting on animals for a long time.  The opposition has made little headway because experimenters, backed by commercial firms that profit by supplying laboratory animals and equipment, have been able to convince legislators and the public that opposition comes from uninformed fanatics who consider the interests of animals more important than the interests of human beings.  To be opposed to what is going on now is not necessarily to insist that all animal experiments stop immediately.  However, experiments serving no direct and urgent purpose should stop immediately, and in the remaining fields of research, we should, wherever possible, seek to replace experiments that involve animals with alternative methods.


To offer a brief overview of the types of experiments going on in the name of research, consider the following:  studying the effects of partial social isolation by raising monkeys from birth in bare wire cages and/or stainless steel chambers.  These monkeys suffer from total maternal deprivation and  social isolation.  This study done by a well-respected research professor in the Midwest held in high esteem by his colleagues and editor of a leading psychology journal, concluded that sufficiently severe and enduring early isolation reduces these animals to a social-emotional level in which the primary social responsiveness is fear.  Another horrific experiment with baby monkeys, considered a “fascinating idea” by the researchers responsible for conducting the experiment, sought to induce depression by allowing baby monkeys to attach to cloth surrogate mothers who could become monsters.  The sequence of torture proceeded from shooting high pressure air at the subjects which would blow the animal’s skin practically off of its body.  What did the baby monkey do?  Simply clung tighter to its mother.  Another surrogate mother built would rock so violently the baby’s head and teeth would rattle.  The baby just clung tighter and tighter to the surrogate mother.  Finally, a porcupine mother was introduced to eject sharp brass spikes over all of the ventral surface of its body.  Although distressed, the baby monkeys would wait for the spikes to recede and then return to clinging to the mother.  These results, were not surprising, researchers said, since the only recourse of an injured child is to cling to its mother.  These experiments continue to be performed in the United States. 


Experiments with dogs involve many kinds of torture and suffering.  A sad tale of futility is that of experiments designed to produce “learned helplessness”, supposedly a model of depression in human beings.  This experiment involves a shuttlebox, with two compartments and the top of the box set at the dog’s back, delivering hundreds of electric shocks through a grid in the floor.  Further, the compartment was blocked with a glass plate and the dogs would smash into the glass.  Symptoms displayed by the animals ranged from defecation, urination, yelping and shrieking, trembling, attacking the apparatus and this continued for twelve days.  After this duration, the animals ceased to resist and acquired a “learned helplessness”. 


When experiments can be brought under the heading “medical” we are inclined to think any suffering involved must be justifiable, but the testing of therapeutic drugs is less likely to be motivated by the desire for maximum good to all than by the desire for maximum profit. 


Defenders of animal experimentation are fond of telling us that animal experimentation has greatly increased our life expectancy.  These claims are false.  The examples used to support these claims, via advertising, are misleading and often a misinterpretation of statistics.  Many infectious diseases have been brought under control by simply improving sanitation and diet before introducing any new form of medical treatment that would have come out of these research experiments.  Major health problems around the world continue to exist not because we do not know how to prevent disease and keep people healthy,  but because there isn’t enough funds generated to do what we already know how to do – ensure adequate nutrition, sanitation and health care.  Statistics prepared by a national survey estimate that between 1910 and 1984, perhaps 3.5 percent of the fall in the overall death rate can be explained through medial intervention for the major infectious diseases.   It is precisely for these diseases that medicine claims most success is lowering mortality.  Remember, this 3.5 percent figure is for all medical intervention and animal experimentation itself can be, at most, only a fraction of this tiny contribution to the decline of mortality.


Those who are genuinely concerned about improving health care would probably make a more effective contribution to human health if they left the laboratories and saw to it that our existing stock of medical knowledge reached those who need it most.

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© Copyright Philip A. Pecorino 2002. All Rights reserved.

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