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Vivisection and animal experimentation has been controversial since the 19th century with physiologists expressing reservations much earlier. Sides, for and against, have formed over the years and are often deeply entrenched in their respective viewpoints.
In 1655, physiologist Edmund O'Meara is recorded as saying that "the miserable torture of vivisection surely places the body in an unnatural state." O'Meara thus expresses one of the chief scientific objections, that the pain of the vivisected subject will interfere with the accuracy of the results. Other objections exist, both scientific and moral.
On the other side of the debate, those in favour of vivisection hold that surgical procedures must be performed on the living animal because the dead body begins to decay too quickly and the decayed tissue is thought to be of less use.
Vivisection has long been practised on human beings. Herophilos, the "father of anatomy" and founder of the first medical school in Alexandria, was described by the church leader Tertullian as having vivisected at least 600 live prisoners. In recent times, the wartime programs of Nazi Dr. Josef Mengele and the Japanese military (Unit 731 and Dr. Fukujiro Ishiyama at Kyushu Imperial University Hospital) conducted human vivisections on concentration camp prisoners in their respective countries during WWII. In response to these atrocities, the medical profession internationally adopted the Nuremberg Code as a code of ethics. This code of ethics does not prohibit vivisection on humans.
Human volunteers can consent to be subjects for invasive experiments which may involve, for example, the taking of tissue samples (biopsies), or other procedures which require surgery on the volunteer. These procedures must be approved by ethical review, and carried out in an approved manner that minimizes pain and long term health risks to the subject . Despite this, the term is generally recognized as pejorative: one would never refer to life-saving surgery, for example, as "vivisection." The use of the term vivisection when referring to procedures performed on humans almost always implies a lack of consent.
In 1822, in the British parliament, Richard Martin MP piloted the first parliamentary bill in the world to give animals a degree of protection through the law. This first bill related to farm animals. The first to regulate animal experimentation in Britain was the Cruelty to Animals Act (1876). One of the people who campaigned to see the bill introduced was Charles Darwin (1809-1882). He said, in a letter of March 22, 1871 to Professor Ray Lankester: "You ask about my opinion on vivisection. I quite agree that it is justifiable for real investigations on physiology; but not for mere damnable and detestable curiosity. It is a subject which makes me sick with horror, so I will not say another word about it, else I shall not sleep to-night." The bill remained on the statute books until the introduction of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act (1986).
From the early days of animal welfare legislation concerns were both for the relief of animal suffering and also for the moral health of humanity. The Victorians were particularly concerned that people should show good moral virtues such as kindness and concern for others. It was in Victorian Britain that the RSPCA (the world's first SPCA - Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals) was formed. One of the founder members was William Wilberforce, who was also in the forefront of anti-slavery activism.
These Victorian concerns have formed a backdrop to ongoing debate throughout the 20th century and into current times.
The defenders of animal testing believe the differences between species to be very minor and not sufficient to invalidate the results obtained. They also say that cures for many illnesses have been found by the use of animal experiments. These claims are disputed.
The argument is often raised that animals themselves benefit from being experimented upon since these experiments can lead to veterinary medicines and procedures. There is also a strong moral and emotional feeling that even one single medical advance for humans is worth any number of animals.
Focusing on the cruelty issues, SPCAs have been formed in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, The United States and other countries. Animal welfare organisations have fiercely debated the issues both scientific and moral and have developed an offshoot: the animal rights movement.
Focusing on the scientific issues, research departments have been set up in Europe and the USA to find as many non-animal methods of research as possible and to provide the information about these methods to scientists working within relevant fields.
Medical researchers experimenting on animals often express a wish that the general public had a greater understanding of the issues involved and say that every care is taken in safeguarding the welfare of the animals experimented upon.
The main science-based issues raised against animal experimentation are:
- That the animal body differs in so many respects from that of the human that cutting the tissue (in vivisection) of the living animal will reveal nothing about human health or illness.
- That the animal body differs in many other respects such that administering drugs, poisons, and diseases will lead to similarly irrelevant results. For instance, increasing (or decreasing) the dosage in order to compensate for a different body size can generate artifacts which may be indecipherable.
- That the pain experienced by an animal without adequate analgesia will produce compensatory reactions of the heart, blood, lymph, nervous system and tissues to such an extent as to completely distort any results gained.
- That the analagesia, if administered, will represent a different set of circumstances within the creatures' metabolism and that these different circumstances also distort the results.
- That the conditions under which the animal is cut open are clinical and have thus removed the animal from any natural context which could be applied to the living conditions of either the human or the animal.
- That the human emotional and psychological factors governing how we cope with both illness and injury are not necessarily present in all species cut.
- That the cutting itself, even without the pain, will cause the tissues to react differently than an uncut tissue.
- That a wide range of alternative methods for research exist and give more accurate results.
The counter arguments to these concerns are:
- That there are many similarities between humans and animals. That the differences are sufficiently well known for all of them to be taken into account and the distorted results adjusted accordingly.
- That observational artifacts can similarly be taken into account and useful results obtained.
- That the animal's reactions to pain may be discounted from the results.
- That clinical conditions are necessary for accurate observation of the experimental model.
- That human emotional and psychological factors are not relevant to research.
- That alternative methods are still only being developed, whereas animal experimentation has a long history.
The main issues raised of an ethical nature against animal experimentation are:
- That it is considered by many to be cruel to inflict harm on an otherwise healthy animal.
- That it is considered by many within religious philosophies to be a deminishment of the human soul to perpetrate harm.
- That it is thought by some humanistic viewpoints that committing acts of harm to an animal will cause a psychological callousness to result from the habitual tolerance of harm infliction. That this psychological callousness may lead to our mental ill health and social misbehaviour. That one who easily harms a living thing will easily harm a child or marriage partner.
- That Buddhists, Jains, Hindus, Christians and others advise us to work actively to help relieve suffering in other species.
The counter arguments to these moral concerns are:
- That it would be cruel to cause harm to human beings by not using animals.
- That religion is not relevant to scientific research.
- That there is no objective evidence of researchers being any more callous than the average person.
- That animal experimentation actively work to relieve animal suffering by providing the knowledge necessary to develop veterinary cures.
There exists a further area of debate which combines some scientific and moral issues into one. This is the area of concern about humans who may be harmed as a result of trusting possibly inaccurate test results and consequently taking unsafe medication. One side believes that animal experimentation puts humans at risk and the other side believes the risk to be lessened by such experiments.
Experimenters are of the opinion that this particular objection to animal experimentation is invalid because the final test of any medication is a clinical trial on human subjects.
- Animal rights
- Animal testing
- Declaration of Helsinki
- Doctors' Trial
- Geneva Convention
- Human experimentation
- Medical ethics
- Medical torture
- Nuremberg Principles
- Universal Declaration of Human Rights
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