Ethical Issues in the Use of Animals in Biomedical Research
Richard R. Sharp, PhD
Center for Medical Ethics and Health Policy
Baylor College of Medicine
The use of animals in biomedical research has a lengthy history. Early Greek writings (circa 500 B.C.), for example, describe the dissection of living animals by physician-scientists interested in physiological processes. These early vivisections appear to have been done mostly for exploratory purposes, however, to describe the inner workings of animals. Later, Roman physicians--including perhaps the single most influential figure in the emergence of the medical sciences, the physician Galen--began to perform what we would now regard as the first genuine experiments involving animals. Using vivisections to test specific hypotheses and explore competing explanations of biological phenomena, these early physician-researcher were among the first advocates of the idea that the use of animals in research was morally justifiable in light of the potential health benefits associated with those experiments.
Beginning with Galen, animal vivisection quickly emerged as an important tool for the study of anatomical structures and their functioning. Remarkably, Galen’s teachings on human anatomy, which were widely used by physicians and scientists for nearly 1500 years, were derived from animal dissections and external examinations of the human body--he conducted no human autopsies. Later, as modern scientific principles were increasingly incorporated into the study of human physiology, physician-researchers such as Andrea Vesalius and William Harvey continued to employ animal vivisection in their investigations of the functioning of various anatomical structures, particularly the heart and lungs.
Throughout this historical period, few philosophical or moral objections were voiced regarding the use of animals in biomedical studies. This is perhaps surprising for two reasons. First, anesthetics were poorly understood and rarely used in animal vivisections. Second, the medical benefits of using animals in research were at best ambiguous during this period. Although both of these considerations would appear to argue strongly against the use of animals in research, there was clear moral consensus that the practice of animal vivisection was not unethical.
A Changing Moral Landscape
In the early and mid 19th century, this moral consensus becomes less clear. The availability of general anesthetics and the increasingly popularity of domestic pets (particularly in England), fueled anti-vivisection sentiments. By 1865, these reformist sentiments had become strong enough to prompt a response by the medical establishment. In his work, Introduction to the Study of Experimental Medicine, Claude Bernard was among the first to advance a moral argument in support of the use of animals in research. Arguing that the sacrifice of animals lives was essential to the advancement of medicine, and thus the relief of human suffering and extension of human life, Bernard argued that animal experimentation was ethically acceptable.
Changes in moral philosophy around that time, however, made Bernard’s argument less compelling than it might have been were it introduced a generation earlier. In the early modern period, prevailing metaphysical beliefs about non-human animals included the Cartesian notion that animals were non-sentient automatons incapable of experiencing pain or pleasure. Only human beings were endowed with these special capacities, which they possessed in virtue of the fact that they had souls (which animals lacked). However, the emergence of utilitarianism as an influential moral paradigm called this perspective into question. Philosophers like Jeremy Bentham questioned whether animals truly lacked the capacity to experience pain or pleasure. In addition, Bentham argued that this capacity was a defining feature of membership in the moral community. For...
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