An experimenter at the University of California--Los Angeles who addicts monkeys to methamphetamines, kills them and dissects their brains recently defended the practice of tormenting animals in laboratories by saying that it was a "fact of science." Animal experimentation is indeed a "fact" in the sense that it takes place, but its mere existence is not a sound ethical defense, with all its accompanying violence and death. This sort of argument implies that the way we conduct science--and the way we treat animals--is constant, unchangeable and not up for debate. Fortunately, this is not how science (or society) actually works.
Other "facts of science" that history ultimately deemed atrocities include experiments on unconsenting humans --among them, the poor, prisoners, the developmentally disabled, Jews and African-Americans. J. Marion Sims, the so-called "father of gynecology," developed life-saving treatments for difficult pregnancies that are still in use today by conducting surgeries on the genitalia of unanesthetized female slaves he "rented" from local plantations.
A century later, one government researcher defended his involvement in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments by stating that because the people being deprived of medical treatment were poor black sharecroppers, "The men's status did not warrant ethical debate. They were subjects, not patients; clinical materials, not sick people." Back then, using black men and women against their will in experiments was as much a "fact of science" as slavery and racial segregation were a "fact of life." Both then and now this abhorrent cruelty and racism was indefensible.
Those who support animal experimentation--not unlike the people who conducted the unethical experiments mentioned above--are quick to acknowledge the similarities between species in order to justify the use of animals as proxies for humans, but they are even quicker to minimize and disregard the obvious moral implications because it is not in their personal, political or financial interests to do so. Self-reflection and scientific inquiry can lead to conclusions that are uncomfortable and inconvenient, but society will never progress if people choose to assimilate only the ideas that reinforce their personal biases and protect their own interests.
Evolutionary theory and scientific evidence tell us that animals --from mice to monkeys --possess all the same characteristics that make it repugnant to experiment on humans without their consent. Animals who are locked in laboratories, just like the dogs and cats with whom we share our homes, have their own lives and preferences and experience pain, suffering and pleasure. They express empathy when other animals are in distress, and they exhibit altruism, putting themselves in harm's way rather than allowing a friend or relative to suffer. They are sons, daughters, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers. Their lives matter to them and should matter to us too.
Yet, the law allows rats, rabbits, cats, dogs, pigs, monkeys and other animals to be burned, shocked, poisoned, isolated, starved, paralyzed, cut open and addicted to drugs as well as have their brains damaged. What happens to animals in laboratories would be considered criminal cruelty to animals if it occurred elsewhere. No experiment --no matter how painful or trivial --is prohibited, and painkillers are not required.
Even when viable alternatives to animals are available, the law does not require that these alternatives be used, and very often they aren't. For example, faculty at the University of Michigan and the Medical University of South Carolina--which oddly gives out an annual award for surgical excellence named after the infamous Dr. Sims mentioned above--continue to cut holes into pigs' throats and chests in a crude and deadly medical training exercise, even though the schools use sophisticated humanlike simulators to teach the same skills elsewhere on their campuses.
Animals aren't chosen to be used in experiments because they are inferior to humans in any morally relevant way or because it's good science. They are chosen because--like slaves, prisoners and the poor--they are more vulnerable, and it has been unjustly decided that their pain is less important than ours.
History will look back on the "fact" of humans' violent exploitation of animals in laboratories and see it for precisely what it is--a grave moral misstep.
Justin Goodman is associate director of Laboratory Investigations for People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals as well as an adjunct faculty member in the Department of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Marymount University in Arlington, Va. He can be reached c/o PETA, 501 Front St., Norfolk, VA 23510; www.PETA.org.