Medical science has a longstanding heritage of animal experimentation. Today we reap undoubted benefits from the efforts of our forefathers, with advances like the Salk vaccine against poliomyelitis standing tribute to the successes of the past. However, as technology improves we must continue to ask ourselves whether such stories are reason enough in themselves to continue in the same vein. Particularly as the anti-vivisectionist lobby gains public approval, despite some of its radical tactics, we need to be sure that we can continue to justify our use of animals in scientific procedures, and that we have sound reasons for doing so, not just a desire not to upset the status quo. This article attempts to examine the issue from a Christian perspective in the hope that it will enable you to consider this undoubtedly emotive issue as objectively as possible.
Human nature - the image of God
The whole crux of the matter rests upon whether humans are simply nothing more than the highest members of the animal kingdom, or if there is something about our character which sets us apart. It is at this point that, as Christians, we have an undeniable advantage over many others. Not only do we believe that we are set apart, but we also know what it is about ourselves which makes it so. As always the answer is found in the Bible - God made man in his own image. He values us above the rest of his creation so we should obviously follow his example. After all he valued us so highly that he sent his only Son to redeem MANkind, there is no suggestion that individual animals share in this promise of redemption.
This argument may seem self-evident but it is of crucial importance for it is this which is the stumbling block of many of the philosophers who seek to advance the cause of animal rights. For if you do not consider there to be a clear and absolute distinction between animals and humans, then you are left with trying to define what it is about humans that makes us special, rather than valuing us as a race per se. Peter Singer's[4,5] criterion is the ability to suffer, and he has developed a complex form of utilitarianism, based upon the concept of the greatest good, to justify his position. Conversely, Tom Regan argues upon the basis of inherent value, based upon such things as reason, autonomy and intellect. Despite these different philosophical arguments however, these two leading philosophers are actually very similar in terms of practical policies.
They both share the same problem, spelled out clearly by another philosopher, Roger Frey, that of drawing boundaries in so-called 'marginal cases' such as anencephalic or brain damaged infants. Such humans are clearly psychologically on a par, or lower, than non-humans and do not even have any potential, (in this life), unlike the normal but completely dependent newborn baby, to become 'superior' to other animals. This is particularly relevant as there are obvious advantages in experimenting on such humans (not that I am condoning it in any way at all!), in that most of the experimental work on animals is actually for the purpose of benefiting humans, and in this instance there would be no difficulty in extrapolating the results. For example, it seems highly probable that Baby Fae would have stood a better chance of survival with a human heart transplant than she did with the baboon heart that she actually received. Some have tried to argue for a moral distinction upon the grounds that, to become 'marginal', the human must have already suffered harm and should therefore be protected from further suffering. However, even the secular philosophers of today concede that to believe that man is made in the image of God would eradicate the problem of 'marginal cases' in an instant. Yet they maintain that such a truth, (one of the basic truths of Christianity), cannot be sustained in today's pluralistic society, an argument which we should surely take as a challenge to evangelism.
What about higher animals?
The Christian position does raise one problem of its own however. For although the distinction between humans and animals is clear and unequivocal, it rather begs the question of what about the rest of the animal kingdom? Are all animals equal? Clearly society does not think so, as the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 defines a 'protected animal' as a living vertebrate (other than man), and places further restrictions upon the use of cats, dogs, primates and equidae. This I might point out, has caused considerable controversy amongst a working party for the Institute of Medical Ethics, who argue that there is no reason to believe that certain invertebrates, such as cephalopods for example, are any less able to experience pain and suffering than 'higher' animals. So is there any biblical justification for considering some animals 'higher' than others?
One obvious place to start would be with creation. God created the world and everything in it. He valued everything that he made and gave it to us a gift which we should clearly also value. Indeed, apart from the cursing of the serpent, there are apparently no comparisons between the relative worth of different species of animals in the Bible, only between animals and man. For whilst you cold try to argue that God chose only insects and frogs in the plagues of Egypt, he was certainly not averse to mammalian sacrifices and Jesus destroyed an entire herd of pigs when healing two demon possessed men. That is not to say that we should not use our God given intellect to draw sensible conclusions about what we believe in practice, only to remember that we must then be employing the arguments of someone like Regan or Singer, just drawing an absolute line of distinction when we approach mankind. Clearly your view on this point may well be modified by your stand upon creation and evolution, but that discussion is outside the scope of this article.
Stewardship of creation
Whether or not all animals are equal, the Bible certainly sets down some clear guidelines as to how we should treat them. God places us in a position of special responsibility over the animals which he has created, emphasising once again our greater value than that of other animals. Yet this is a position of stewardship, not of tyrannic rule; we are, at most, the tenants of this world, not the owners, and the consequences of abuse of our position are spelled out in Revelation.
Cruelty to animals is also condemned in the Bible, with one of the marks of a righteous man being his concern for his animal. Indeed, Jesus even confirmed that the Sabbath should be overruled if needed to prevent animal suffering.
Killing as distinct from suffering
All these arguments seem very clear - as Christians we can be certain in our belief that God values us above the rest of creation; indeed that he has placed us in a position of special responsibility over our fellow creatures. Consequently we have an obligation to diminish animal suffering as far as possible, but what about the growing number of animal experiments which do not involve suffering but rather humane killing of the animal? Indeed, as one philosopher suggests, would the creation of a whole new breed of 'painless' animals, (leaving aside the ethical implications of such genetic manipulation), completely alter our view on animal experimentation. Would we still feel the same way if there truly were quadrupeds, as Douglas Adams suggests, who actually ask us to eat them?
Considering this matter logically, it would be hard for any meat-eater to argue against the humane killing of animals for experimental purposes or for use as 'spare parts' for surgical procedures. As Michael Bewick so eloquently puts it: 'There is no difference between having a porker save your bacon and eating bacon for breakfast.'
The Bible teaches that everything is given for our use as food, so that, whilst one may choose to be vegetarian, there is certainly no injunction on everyone to follow such a course. Also, not all the animals killed in the Bible were used as food, sacrifices were not only condoned but encouraged throughout the Old Testament so there is probably no reason to condemn the humane slaughter of animals provided there is justifiable cause.
On a practical point, many of the so-called 'alternatives' to animal experimentation utilise in-vitro techniques on animal tissues so we must be certain of where we stand on this issue and take care to examine such 'alternative' proposals carefully.
The current position
Having considered the ethical dilemmas that underlie the whole subject of animal experimentation, it is important to establish what the current position is and what, if anything, we should be doing to alter it. As a beginning there is an immense need for further public education on the issue as there is a large gap between public perception and actual reality: A Gallup poll in the Daily Telegraph in 1990 asked people what they considered to be the most frequent reason for using animals in scientific procedures - 14% said that it was 'testing cosmetics for safety' whereas in reality this was the case in less than 0.1% of cases, according to Home Office statistics.
Such misleading information is most probably attributable to the anti-vivisectionist lobby, yet that is no excuse for us to adopt similar tactics in defence of research. As always, as Christians, we should be seeking to advance the truth, even if, on occasions, it is not always what we would like ourselves, or others, to hear. For example it is an undoubted fallacy to insist that all animal research is valuable, and our desire to be responsible stewards of God's creation should lead us to reduce the number of such experiments which 'waste the lives of other animals for the sake of a longer vita or longer progress report'.
Indeed I personally believe that we should be joining with those who seek to enhance animal protection within medicine (which is not to say that I condone in any way the more radical actions of the animal rights movement). For there are still many ways in which the 3 Rs, (refinement of techniques, reduction in the number of animals used and replacement of animal methods with other techniques), can be incorporated into current practice without any adverse effect on human health. As to whether this could completely eradicate the need for animal experimentation in medical research, I, like 70% of doctors surveyed recently by the BMA, am not convinced. However, both as Christians and as medics, we should be endeavouring to alleviate suffering. I can see no reason why this desire should not extend to other members of the animal kingdom, so long as we maintain a biblical perspective upon the unique position of mankind.