Sharon Radford
1992 Woodrow Wilson Biology Institute


In the consideration of animal use in science and medicine, several different ethical considerations are pertinent. One, that of the more extreme animal "rights" groups, considers animals as moral agents equal to humans, based on the ability of animals to feel pain. A second framework views animals as objects of human welfare, whether they be pets, participants in sport, or working. (The Humane Society and the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals have been around since the late l800's.) The third view considers animals primarily as objects of human utility, necessary for herding, packing, food, or income.

The idea of animals as full moral agents appeals to our sympathy with other living things, but it unfortunately disregards the role of human interdependence in the biosphere, and leads to convoluted moral justifications for using (or not using) animal products, medicine, or certain foods. For example, to live this philosophy many humans try to separate themselves from the food web, shown in part by the growing move to vegetarianism (plants as living organisms don't seem to count, one of the difficulties), even though humans are omnivorous by evolution, physiology, and nutritional needs.

The second view, in which animals are accorded an intermediate status is the one traditionally encompassed and practiced most widely. Complex relationships with animals as both objects of affection and utility are not only possible, but necessary in agrarian societies. The mule is called by name, the prize pig is pampered, the herd dog perhaps has the best spot in front of the fire. Few of us today raise the pigs we eat, or the corn, for that matter, and thus have lost the sense of daily interdependence many of our grandparents had, and our rural neighbors still have, with their animals. Even though we have lost the "utility with welfare" relationship, and primarily keep animals as pets or for sport, we still often accord them a special status, loved and prized, yet less than other humans.

In contrast, researchers in science and medicine have viewed animals as objects of utility. Although the majority of scientists are careful with their animals both because it is the "right" thing to do and because good research requires animals in good condition, there have been, in fact, some abuses which the animal rights movement has exposed. As a result, scientists today work under a stringent set of guidelines under the Animal Welfare Act. This act established Institutional Animal Care and Use Committees (IACUCs) responsible for monitoring standards of animal care within a given institution, or under the Public Health Service, which specified the responsibilities of the IACUCs. Any investigator receiving federal funds is subject to inspection by the USDA (under the Animal Welfare Act), or by the NIH, or both. Proposed procedures are carefully scrutinized first to ascertain the necessity of using a particular animal, then to ensure that the discomfort to the animal will be minimized with appropriate measures.

It is very difficult to find any medical procedure that does not involve using animal models first. When an animal rights activist says, "Don't t ell me we're talking about my grandmother!" the only response can be, "We are talking about your grandmother, and you, your children, your friends, and even your cat." Would we, even if we could, go back to the days when it was not uncommon for a family to lose half its children to diseases which are today easily prevented or cured by vaccines and antibiotics? Even though alternatives to animal testing decrease the number of animals used in research, animal use cannot be eliminated without severely curtailing our ability to improve treatment and prevention of serious illness. The dilemma is to balance the maximum human benefit with a respect for the welfare of the animals used, and to minimize the numbers of animals used when possible and appropriate.

Using These Case Studies:

The purpose of these case studies is to help students to consider the broader ethical aspects of the issue, and to alert students that there are significant standards which must be maintained when animals are used in research. There are several useful strategies for using case studies outlined elsewhere in other modules which would be appropriate for use with the ones given here. In general, groups of three or four are good for the initial discussions because students tend to think at higher ethical levels (in Kohlberg's model) when working in groups rather than individually. The role of the teacher is to prod students to these higher levels.

Some ideas:

  1. To facilitate the discussion if students get stuck in a narrow view, the teacher can arbitrarily assign a student one of the "other" roles in the scenario. For example, if "George" refuses medication in part B of the first case, the teacher can turn to one of the girls (or boys) and ask, "Chris's mother (father), what do you think about that decision? What does it mean for you?"

  2. Ask if more information is needed. In some situations it may be appropriate for students to do some background reading, or have a fact sheet, before beginning the case study. Caution students about misinformation stated as "fact." Some teachers distribute fact sheets at the beginning of some simulations.

  3. If two students are deadlocked, have them continue the discussion taking opposite roles (i.e., the "anti" person has to argue, convincingly, the "pro" side, and vice versa).

  4. If one or two students are monopolizing the conversation, pull in one or more of the other "roles" as in "1" above to break the pattern.



George is a seventeen-year-old high school student who has contracted a mild, but painful, eye infection. His doctor prescribed a medication which would relieve the symptoms and combat the infection. If left untreated, this type of infection usually clears up spontaneously within two weeks. George is responsible for driving himself and his younger sister to school and other activities each day.

George has been concerned about the unnecessary use of animals in product testing for several years, and he has learned that the Draize test was used in testing the safety of this medication. The Draize test involves applying the tested product to the eyes of rabbits to look for irritation and other side effects. Although there are alternative ways to test for many such products, the Draize test remains the most reliable test for this particular medication.

Should George use the medication?

A. In small groups, consider the following questions. Have one member of the group record the group's answers.

  1. What is the dilemma for George?

  2. What are George's options? List at least three.

  3. Should anyone else be considered in George's decision? Who?

  4. What are the consequences of each option?

  5. Which is the best option for George? How did you decide?

B. What if George had found that his infection, if left untreated, has a high probability of leading to further complications, including blindness?

  1. Now what is George's dilemma?

  2. What are his options? What value or values underlie each option?

  3. Should anyone else be considered? Who? Why? List the other persons and give your reasons for including them.

  4. What are the consequences of each option for George? for the others? List at least three for each person.

  5. Are some of the consequences more serious than others? Which ones? List the consequences in order or decreasing importance.

  6. What should George do?

  7. What would happen if everyone with this infection made this decision?


You and three other students have been appointed to a committee to approve science fair projects using animals. The following proposals have been submitted:

A. Pat wants to study the effect of differing doses of ethyl alcohol on the ability of white mice to learn their way through a maze. Pat plans to carry out this project at home in the basement, which has an unused heated and lighted room. Pat has raised white mice successfully for several years and takes good care of them.

B.Lynn has arranged to work with a biochemist, Dr. Hinerman, in a nearby university laboratory to determine levels of certain blood proteins in a guinea pig model of a newly discovered genetic disorder. (A guinea pig "model" means that there is a strain of guinea pig which has the same, or very similar, disorder as that seen in humans). Her experiments would require her to draw blood from the guinea pigs once a day for six weeks. Three months ago Dr. Hinerman was advised by the USDA inspector that outdated food was being used in the animal room. Because he adheres to high standards of animal maintenance and care, Dr. Hinerman was surprised to find that a bag of food which had expired (by two days) was indeed in the animal room. He immediately disposed of the food and reprimanded the graduate student responsible. Since that time there have been no other instances of standards violations in his lab.

Lynn is a senior, has maintained high grades in high school, and plans a career in science. A good science fair project will help her get a needed scholarship to her chosen university. Without the scholarship, she will have to work at least half-time to afford to attend college and will not be able to take the full course load required of a science major.

C.Chris wants to study the effect of varying acid and salt concentrations on the viability of several species of common plant and animal plankton in the nearby bay. Chris has been concerned about the reports of acid precipitation in his area, and wants to use his results as a measure of its effect on the estuary ecosystem. He proposes to use the LD50 test, in which he will find the concentration of acid and salt that kills 50% of the organisms tested, and to compare his results with the conditions in the bay.

Which of the proposals will you approve? Consider the following questions for EACH.

  1. What dilemma(s) are involved in each proposal?

  2. What are the options open to the committee? List as many as possible.

  3. Who should be considered in each decision? Why?

  4. What are the consequences of each option you proposed in #2? List at least three for each proposal.

  5. Did you see any differences between Chris's work on plankton (small invertebrates and plants) and work on small mammals? If so, what are the differences? If you found none, list at least three reasons that someone else might do so.

  6. What is your recommendation for each proposal? Defend your answer.

  7. Would you want your recommendation to be followed in all similar cases?


Erin's best friend Frank has been diagnosed with a rare leukemia. Fortunately, a new therapy involving a modified bone marrow transplant has been tested on chimpanzees and has now been approved for experimental use in humans. Frank is a candidate for this therapy; in fact, it his best hope for survival. A bone marrow transplant requires a good tissue match, which is usually available from a family member. Unfortunately, Frank was adopted by his parents as a baby, and no one in his immediate family has a sufficiently good match. Erin, although a member of a group which opposes the use of animals in research, agreed to be tested only to demonstrate her support for Frank and, you guessed it, has the best tissue match. What should she do? Consider the following questions in your deliberations:

  1. List the values that are in conflict in this scenario. Are some more important than others? Which ones? Why?

  2. What are Erin's options? List at least three.

  3. What are the consequences of each option for Erin? for Frank?

  4. Should anyone else be considered? Who? Why?

  5. What should Erin do in light of these considerations? Defend your answer.


While visiting her younger brother's third grade class as part of a student tutoring program, Carolyn noticed that the water bottle in the class's hamster cage was dirty, and that the wood shavings in the bottom of the cage were far from fresh. In fact, they stank, and Carolyn worried that the smelly shavings and dirty water bottle might indicate general disregard for the hamster's welfare. Her brother Dan, a rather lively child, was often in trouble with his teacher, and in fact, had been in trouble just the day before. What should Carolyn do?

  1. What is Carolyn's dilemma? (What values are in conflict?)

  2. Who should be considered?

  3. What are her options? (List at least three.)

  4. What are the consequences of each option? (List as many as you can for each.)

  5. What should Carolyn do?


There are many articles in newspapers and magazines on this issue, many of which are influenced by the extreme views of animal "rights" groups. Out of nearly forty books in the Princeton libraries, more than half were of the "anti-vivisection" type. Because it is more difficult to find articles that concern the complexity of the issue, it is that type that I am including here.

  • DeGrazia, David. "The Moral Status of Animals and Their Use in Research: A Philosophical Review." Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal. Johns Hopkins University Press. Vol. 1: 1, March, l991.

    - an excellent, readable yet intellectual review. Single issues available from publisher, subscription available from Journals Publishing Division, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 701 West 40th Street, Suite 275, Baltimore, Maryland 21211. Individuals $45/yr, institutions $65/yr.

  • Hearne, Vicki. "What's Wrong with Animal Rights: of hounds, horses, and Jeffersonian happiness." Harper's Magazine, Vol 283: 59-64, September, l991.

    - a personal view by an animal trainer which illustrates an interdependent relationship between humans and animals.

  • Olson, Steve, ed. Science, Medicine, and Animals. Washington, D.C., National Academy Press, l991.

    - a 30 page booklet prepared by The National Academy of Science and Institute of Medicine to answer the most commonly asked questions about animal research and to discuss some of the ways in which animal research has benefited human and animal health and well-being. Available from NATIONAL ACADEMY PRESS, 2101 Constitution Avenue, NW, P.O. Box 285, Washington DC 20055. To order by phone call 1-800-624-6242 (M-F 8:30-5:00) Single copy $5.00, discounts for larger orders (e.g., 10+ copies, $2.50 each).

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