Animal Rights and the Ethics of Testing

Mice being used in scientific research
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Animals have been used as test subjects for medical experiments and other scientific investigations for hundreds of years. With the rise of the modern animal rights movement in the 1970s and '80s, however, many people began to question the ethics of using living creatures for such tests. Although animal testing remains commonplace today, public support for such practices has declined in recent years.

Testing Regulations

In the United States, the Animal Welfare Act sets certain minimum requirements for the humane treatment of non-human animals in laboratories and other settings. It was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1966. The law, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, sets "minimum standards of care and treatment be provided for certain animals bred for commercial sale, used in research, transported commercially, or exhibited to the public."

However, anti-testing advocates rightfully claim that this law has limited enforcement power. For example, the AWA explicitly excludes from protection all rats and mice, which make up approximately 95 percent of the animals used in laboratories. To address this, a number of amendments have been passed in subsequent years. In 2016, for example, the Toxic Substances Control Act included language that encouraged the use of "non-animal alternative testing methodologies."

The AWA also requires institutions that perform vivisection to establish committees that are supposed to oversee and approve the use of animals, making sure that non-animal alternatives are considered. Activists counter that many of these oversight panels are ineffective or biased in favor of animal experiments. Furthermore, the AWA does not prohibit invasive procedures or the killing of the animals when the experiments are over.

Estimates vary from 10 million to 100 million animals used for testing worldwide on an annual basis, but there are few sources of reliable data available. According to The Baltimore Sun, every drug test requires at least 800 animal test subjects. 

The Animal Rights Movement

The first law in the U.S. prohibiting the abuse of animals was enacted in 1641 in the colony of Massachusetts. It banned mistreatment of animals "kept for man's use." But it wasn't until the early 1800s that people began advocating for animal rights in both the U.S. and the U.K. The first major animal welfare state-sponsored legislation in the U.S. established the Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in New York in 1866.

Most scholars say the modern animal rights movement began in 1975 with the publication of "Animal Rights" by Peter Singer, an Australian philosopher. Singer argued that animals could suffer just as humans do and therefore deserved to be treated with similar care, minimizing pain whenever possible. To treat them differently and say that experimentation on non-human animals is justified but experimentation on humans is not would be speciesist.

U.S. philosopher Tom Regan went even farther in his 1983 text "The Case for Animal Rights." In it, he argued that animals were individual beings just as humans are, with emotions and intellect. In the following decades, organizations such as People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and retailers such as The Body Shop have become strong anti-testing advocates.

In 2013, the Nonhuman Rights Project, an animal rights legal organization, petitioned New York courts on behalf of four chimpanzees. The filings argued that the chimps had a legal right to personhood, and therefore deserved to be freed. The three cases were repeatedly rejected or thrown out in lower courts. In 2017, the NRO announced it would appeal to the New York State Court of Appeals.

The Future of Animal Testing

Animal rights activists frequently argue that ending vivisection would not end medical progress because non-animal research would continue. They point to recent developments in stem-cell technology, which some researchers say could one day replace animal tests. Other advocates also say tissue cultures, epidemiological studies, and ethical human experimentation with fully informed consent could also find a place in a new medical or commercial testing environment.

Resources and Further Reading

Davis, Janet M. "The History of Animal Protection in the United States" Organization of American Historians. Nov. 2015.

Funk, Cary and Raine, Lee. "Opinion About the Use of Animals in Testing." Pew Research Center. 1 Jul. 2015.

United States Department of Agriculture. "Animal Welfare Act."

"Should Animals Be Used for Scientific or Commercial Testing?" Updated 11 Oct. 2017.