Ethics in animal research

The use of animals in research is highly debated with regard to ethical considerations.  Should procedures that are thought to be unethical for humans be carried out animals?  If they are so similar to us that some argue that we can use animal models to understand human behaviour, wouldn’t that also mean that such procedures could cause similar but undetectable suffering in animals?  Invasive research on animals also leads to permanent and irreversible damage.  

Links to TOK: Ethics

There are two key positions on the use of animals in research. 

The utilitarian argument takes the position that if the experimentation results in a greater good, then it was appropriate.  This argument also supports the condition that if research can be in any other way and yield the same results, then animals should not be used.  In order to determine if the research would be ethical, a cost-benefit analysis must be carried out. If the findings would benefit a large number of human beings and/or animals, it could be argued that the research is ethically justified.

The animal rights argument, however, argues that the utilitarian argument is an example of speciesism – that is, the idea that being human is a good enough reason for human animals to have greater rights than non-human animals.  The animal rights argument believes that all animals have rights.  Using animals for research is thus considered inappropriate.

Looking at the two arguments above, which position do you take on the following animal studies? Justify your position.

  1. Studies on the role of acetylcholine on memory (Martinez & Kesner, n.d.)
  2. Research on the role of stress on health (Shively & Day, 2015)
  3. Research on the role of hormones on mating behaviour in prairie voles (Winslow et al, 1993).

Several countries have passed legislation in order to limit animal research and protect animal rights. In 1966 the USA passed the Animal Welfare Act.  The federal law requires that all animal dealers be registered and licensed. In addition, all animal labs must be overseen by a committee that includes one veterinarian and one person not affiliated with the facility. The committee must regularly assess animal care, treatment, and practices during research, and are required to ensure that alternatives to animal use in experimentation would be used whenever possible. A similar law, the Australian Code for the Care and Use of Animals for Scientific Purposes, was passed in 1969.

In 1986 the UK passed the Animal Act. All research must take place in approved facilities; procedures must be approved by an ethics board; a minimal number of animals must be used, and it must be shown that the research cannot be carried out without using animals.

The most recent law passed by the EU was a directive in 2010.  The Directive is based on the principle of the “Three R’s”, to replace, reduce and refine the use of animals used for scientific purposes.

  • Replace the use of animals with alternative techniques, or avoid the use of animals altogether.
  • Reduce the number of animals used to a minimum, to obtain information from fewer animals or more information from the same number of animals.
  • Refine the way experiments are carried out, to make sure animals suffer as little as possible. This includes better housing and improvements to procedures which minimize pain and suffering and/or improve animal welfare.

One of the most debated areas of animal research is the use of primates in labs. A great ape research ban is currently in place in the Netherlands, New Zealand, the United Kingdom, Sweden, Germany and Austria.  These countries have ruled that chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans are cognitively similar to humans and that using them in experimentation is unethical.

The use of chimpanzees in research in the US has continued to decline, but the USA and Gabon are the only countries that still use chimpanzees for research purposes. As of 2011 the USA still had over 1000 chimpanzees in six different laboratories around the country. As chimpanzees may live for up to sixty years in captivity, the same chimps are often used for multiple experiments. Wenka, a chimp that has been in captivity for over fifty years, has become the symbol of what happens to chimps in research facilities. Wenka was born in 1954 and was removed from her mother to be used in a vision experiment.  Since then she has also been used in research on alcohol use, oral contraceptives, ageing and cognition. 

Some researchers argue that since the chimp genome is so close to the human genome, it is essential to maintain the right to use them as subjects.  Some researchers have argued that we should use the same ethical standards that we use for human subjects that are unable to give consent – such as HM.  Animal advocates like Jane Goodall have put a lot of pressure on US labs to stop research on chimps and other primates. In a 2011 report, the Institute of Medicine stated that “while the chimpanzee has been a valuable animal model in past research, most current use of chimpanzees for biomedical research is unnecessary.”  Although some may see this as a step in the right direction, the use of the term “most” leaves open the possibility that some primate research will continue.

One of the most controversial studies in psychology is the research done by Harlow on ‘the nature of love’ where he used monkeys to study how isolation affected social development.

Research in psychology: Harlow (1958)

Harry Harlow conducted many studies on rhesus macaque monkeys.  The following study is only one example of how he experimented with primates to study human attachment. Harry Harlow established the USA’s first primate laboratory in 1932.

In one study he wanted to see the effect of isolation on infant monkeys.  Immediately after birth, he removed infant monkeys from their mother. He kept these infants away from any contact with monkeys for a time period ranging from three months to one year.  Then he put them in an environment with other monkeys to see what effect the lack of a “mother’s love” would have on their behaviour.

He observed that the monkeys displayed abnormal behaviour, including rocking compulsively and self-mutilation. They were afraid of the other monkeys and often attacked them. He also observed that they were unable to socialize with the other monkeys. Those monkeys that were in isolation the longest never recovered.

Harlow’s research is definitely ethically problematic.  Some argue that this was important research in understanding the role of attachment in mental health and therefore justified.  However, others have argued that the studies were unnecessarily cruel.

ATL: Research and inquiry

Your school is putting together an exhibit of important psychologists as part of their promotion of the psychology program.  They have decided to give Harry Harlow one of the prominent positions in the exhibit.  What do you think?

Carry out some research to find out more about his research. What was the value, if any, of this studies?  Do they justify the unethical treatment of the monkeys?

Create an argument for your school’s administration based on research that you find regarding the value of Harlowe’s research.

Animal research in genetics  

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