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Why Animal Experimenters Should Be Vegetarians

When antivivisectionists protest the use of animals in biomedical research, they are commonly met with retorts like this:

“Our faculty members employ animals only when there are no alternative models for advancing their research; our laboratories comply with or exceed all federal regulations and independent accreditation standards. As we continue to advance modern medicine, and provide hope for millions of patients and their families, [our] scientists will sustain their commitment to the humane use of animals in research.” (Yale University press release, July 13, 2010.)

This press release is in line with the so-called 3Rs – replacement (of animals with nonanimal alternatives), reduction (in the number of animals used when their use is deemed essential), and refinement (in the treatment of animals so as to minimize their pain and distress) – the standard of animal research since the 1950s. Nevertheless, it is possible to question whether the use of animals in laboratories may not have been or at least no longer is crucial to medical advances. And even if it is, it does not automatically follow that it should be done or is even morally permissible.

Why not? Simply consider the human analogue. It would no doubt be even more useful to use human beings for the same sorts of medical research that animals are used for; after all, what could be a better “model” for human disease than a human being? But the contemporary consensus is that that would be unconscionable. But then utility, even to the point of “necessity” (for example, to find the cure for cancer as quickly as possible), does not by itself justify laboratory research on a sentient being.

But let us suppose that animal research were both useful for medical progress and morally permissible due to some relevant distinction between human and other animals. Apparently this is what the medical community itself believes, judging by its support for animal research. What I want to argue now is that it would follow that medical researchers should be vegetarians.

At first this may seem paradoxical. If it’s okay to confine animals for their whole lives in cages or other artificial environments, perform sometimes painful and/or disfiguring procedures on them, and finally kill them at an early age, as is done routinely in biomedical research, then why wouldn’t it be okay to do the same for nutritional purposes?

The answer, I maintain, is implicit in the kind of reasons researchers give to justify what they do in their professional role. Their argument is that biomedical research is important, a matter of life and death, relief of pain, etc. (mainly for humans, but also for other animals). The appeals made by individual researchers can certainly be poignant. “I fundamentally believe that relieving human suffering or disease of children is worth the sacrifice of mouse lives,” said Yale Professor Marina Picciotto, as quoted in the Yale Daily News in 2009.

Now, one might suppose that the same argument applies to animals used for human food. Is not eating also a matter of life and death, or at least of thriving? However, there is a crucial difference: The medical community itself has affirmed that eating animals is not necessary to human well-being. Indeed there is abundant evidence that human well-being would be abetted by a vegetarian diet, not only on nutritional but also on health grounds.

The American Dietetic Association states: “It is the position of the American Dietetic Association that appropriately planned vegetarian diets, including total vegetarian or vegan diets, are healthful, nutritionally adequate and may provide health benefits in the prevention and treatment of certain diseases, including heart disease, cancer, obesity and diabetes. Well-planned vegetarian diets are appropriate for individuals during all stages of the life-cycle including pregnancy, lactation, infancy, childhood and adolescence and for athletes.”

Therefore if the medical community implicitly holds that only something as serious as “human suffering or disease of children” justifies laboratory research on animals, and explicitly holds that such is not typically at stake in the choice of a vegetarian (or even vegan) diet (and, in fact, the contrary may hold: an animal diet may actually be bad for you), then one would expect the medical community to forswear meat-eating. This is the least they can do, given the treatment of animals in agriculture – which may actually be worse than their treatment in laboratories because it is subject to less legal regulation. Should not the findings in one branch of medicine (nutrition in this case) inform the behavior of all of the branches?

We may be willing to cut the individual doctor or researcher some slack, for the same reason one might refrain from, say, lecturing a smoker. Our accustomed diets are surely as habitual and possibly even as addictive as smoking is to the average smoker. (For the same reason I would grant the individual antivivisector some, although less, dietary slack.) Thus it may seem more appropriate to extend pity and a helping hand than to condemn.

Of course both smoking and carnivorousness are moral matters since they concern the welfare of not just the person doing the act (of smoking or eating) but also other sentient victims (“secondary smokers” and the animals being eaten, respectively). Still, if reform of behavior is what we seek, moral chastising may not be the most effective means. I am willing, therefore, to couch the issue in terms of what standards the medical profession should adopt.

The analogy of smoking is again apt: It makes perfect sense for the medical profession to promote an end to smoking by its own practitioners as a matter of professional ethics, and to offer them incentives, including information and clinical support. Just so for an end to meat-eating.

If the medical profession resists this suggestion, then one might have reason to suspect the reasons it gives in favor of animal experimentation. I don’t think this suspicion would be an instance of the logical fallacy of ad hominem, whereby one judges the soundness of an argument on the basis of the (lack of) integrity of the person who is giving it. I have already acknowledged that dietary habit may be as addictive as smoking. However, if the person did not also express or at least harbor the desire to give up the habit of eating animals and animal products, like the addicted smoker who wants to stop smoking, then the situation would become more problematic. And when the medical profession itself insists on the moral importance of limiting animal experimentation and making sure it is carried out humanely, while yet remaining silent about meat-eating, the situation borders on the bizarre (if not, to borrow a term from another branch of medicine, schizophrenic).

The argument has even been put forward in defense of animal experimentation that our society approves meat-eating. But meat-eating is itself a medical issue, so citing the behavior of laypersons seems beside the point. It would be like pointing to the number of smokers as evidence for the healthiness of smoking and for the professional ethics of retaining the prerogative to smoke by medical practitioners.

An editorial in Nature advises animal experimenters to “be ready to deal with the broader ethical questions involved.” It argues that if the researchers are unprepared, they “risk being caught wrong-footed when the debate inevitably takes off” and adds that “researchers have won several political victories by addressing the issues openly.” But it seems to me that the sincerity of the relevant professions on this question is properly called into question if they do not come out with equal forcefulness in favor of vegetarianism, indeed veganism, as consistency would require.

Joel Marks is professor emeritus of philosophy at the University of New Haven and a scholar at Yale University’s Interdisciplinary Center for Bioethics. He acknowledges Ian Smith and Mark Sheskin for sharing insights for this essay.

Published on: December 28, 2010
Published in: Animal Research Ethics

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