When Will People Justify Pain In Animal Testing?
Non-human animals are often used in several areas of research that are intended to benefit humans. These include understanding disease and testing the safety of medicine or cosmetic products. However, there are important ethical implications to animal studies given that animals are unable to consent to being tested and often experience pain or distress during the research process.
Previous research has found that the public tends to be less supportive of animal testing when it’s invasive, or when pain is involved. The authors of this paper argue that the animal research community must account for these moral concerns. In this study, the researchers surveyed 782 students and 942 faculty members at the University of Wisconsin-Madison to gauge their attitudes toward animal testing. This institution engages in a lot of animal research and has been the target of animal advocacy protests.
Specifically, the researchers were interested in how much pain and distress is viewed as justified in animal research. Participants were asked to rate how much pain is acceptable depending on the purpose of the research and which species is being studied. The authors were also interested in how factors like gender and dietary preferences affected people’s judgements.
Overall, 43% of students agreed with the statement “I do not think that there is anything wrong with using animals in medical research” compared to 61% of faculty. However, mentioning pain and distress explicitly in the questions decreased the overall justifiability of animal research. In other words, while participants seemed to accept animal testing, they were less accepting when it involved pain. People also justified less pain and distress when asked about the species being studied, rather than the research purpose. This may be because talking specifically about species reminds participants of the individual animals being affected by research.
Participants also tended to divide research animals into two categories. In general, they justified less pain or distress for research involving dogs, cats, monkeys, pigs, and sheep. They were less concerned about suffering in small fishes, rats, and mice. In terms of research purpose, participants justified less pain or distress in animals for chemical or cosmetic testing compared to research on animal disease, human disease, human medicine, and basic research.
Several factors affected how people made their ratings. Surprisingly, students were slightly more likely than faculty members to accept higher levels of pain and distress. Respondents were less likely to justify pain and distress in animal testing if they were women. The strongest influencing factor was diet, as veg*ns were around three times less likely to justify pain and distress.
The researchers then go on to consider how these findings might affect U.S. regulations around animal testing. Different regulatory bodies have different criteria for whether an animal study is seen as ethically acceptable. For instance, Institutional Animal Care and Uses Committees (IACUCs) base their decisions on the 3Rs:
- Replacement — Research should replace animal subjects with non-animal options when possible.
- Reduction — The number of animals used in a study should be decreased as much as possible.
- Refinement — Procedures should be changed so they cause the least pain possible to animal subjects.
IACUCs also use a “harm-benefit test,” weighing the amount of pain or distress that animals might experience against the benefits to humans. For example, animal testing used to produce a vaccine for a disease might be seen as more beneficial than research used to test the safety of a makeup product. The idea that unnecessary harm to animals should be avoided whenever possible lines up with the responses to the survey conducted by these researchers.
However, the authors suggest that the criteria used to perform harm-benefit tests are not always clear and left up to the IACUCs. For example, an IACUC could decide that avoiding mild inconvenience for humans is worth extreme pain to non-human animals. Often, reviewers don’t agree on what justifications are acceptable. This process could be helped by developing standardized tools to classify exactly how harmful a study would be for its animal subjects. This could also make it easier to place restrictions on extreme research.
This paper focuses on ways that approval of animal testing can be made to line up with what is wanted and expected by the public. For animal advocates, it is worth considering that public perceptions of animal research, as measured in this study, might not always reflect what is morally right. Speciesism was also evident in the results, as participants seemed to accept more pain for mice, rats, and fishes compared to other animals. This suggests that more public education about these species is warranted.
As a “low-hanging fruit,” advocates should also consider that, overall, participants generally accepted only lower levels of pain for all species, including sheep, pigs, rats, mice, and fishes. These animals make up the vast majority of research animals in the U.S., but they are excluded from the Animal Welfare Act. Given the obvious public concern on this issue, advocates can use this knowledge to campaign for a revision of the Animal Welfare Act to include all research animals.