What Are the Issues Surrounding “Animal Rights”?
Much of the current opposition to animal research is being fueled by a philosophical position known as “animal rights.” According to this viewpoint, animals have inherent legal and moral rights, just as humans do. This implies that it is unethical to use animals as pets or for any other purpose, whether for food, clothing, recreation, or research. 24
Whether or not animals have “rights” depends on how the term is defined. If living things are ascribed a “right” to remain living, then animals would have rights. But most ethicists do not use the term so broadly. They generally ascribe rights only to members of societies that are capable of applying mutually accepted ethical principles to specific situations.25Animals are not capable of forming or belonging to such societies. In this light, they cannot be ascribed rights.
The animal rights viewpoint also leads to some philosophically untenable conclusions. For instance, in its strongest form it implies that the lives of all animals, including humans, are equal. But the death of a human being is not equivalent to the death of a mouse. We do not commit an act equivalent to the murder of a human every time we eat meat. We do not think it is immoral to attempt to control the rodent populations in sewers or the roach population in homes. Nor do we believe that keeping animals as pets is the moral equivalent of slavery.
There are many groups in the United States that are concerned with the use of animals in research. These groups have a wide variety of positions, and it is an oversimplification to speak of the “animal rights movement.” But a fundamental distinction can be made between those who believe that animal research should continue, albeit with various modifications or restrictions, and those who believe that it should simply stop. These latter individuals, comprising a highly vocal minority in society, are the ones included under the term “animal rights movement.”
They have worked assiduously and skillfully in legislatures, schools, and the media to pursue their cause, and in many cases their actions have met with a great deal of success. Animal research has become more costly and difficult, in part because of self-regulation by scientists but also because of externally imposed regulations. Some animal researchers have left the field, and young researchers have chosen not to enter it. Many members of the general public have the impression, based not on facts but on repeated allegation, that too much animal research is done.
Some members of the animal rights movement pursue more extreme tactics, often with the implicit backing of more moderate elements.26 Since 1980, more than 30 break-ins, thefts, and acts of vandalism against research facilities have caused millions of dollars in damage. 27 Records representing years of work have been destroyed. Researchers and their families have been harassed and threatened.
The scientific community can find no moral justification for these acts, although they are excused and even supported by leaders and leading organizations in the animal rights movement. Vandalism and harassment have slowed medical research that is dedicated to improving human well-being. Individuals who vandalize laboratories and harass researchers are not only breaking the law; they are also materially harming the people who would eventually benefit from the research being done and are denying hope to those with presently incurable diseases.