I had never before any reason to consider myself opposed to medical experimentation on animals. While I am opposed to certain directions in biological research on principle (such as genetic modification), that is because I believe the research to be wrongheaded and dangerous, not because I believe it violates the rights or integrity of the animal. There are many other instances of animal testing (such as anatomical studies, clinical drug trials, and toxicology tests) to which I would raise no principled objection.
Many contemporary philosophers have spun off elaborate theories of animal rights, mostly making use of some sort of utilitarian analysis. I will not bother to refute those theories here, but suffice it to say that they produce far more heat than light and need not be taken seriously. Animals do not have rights. They do not belong by nature to the community of rational beings to which the concept of rights pertains, and therefore it is categorically impossible to transgress against them. While cruelty to animals is indicative of a coarse and wicked nature in the man who practices it, even the meanest sort of animal abuse cannot be said to constitute a crime. No argument against animal testing made on those grounds can expect to stand very long.
On the other hand, the use of animals (as food, as raw materials, as traction, etc.) is entirely licit, for all of creation is ordered to the good of humanity. Animal experiments undertaken for the purpose of enhancing our repository of medical knowledge would seem to be included in the proper concept of use. In fact, the Catechism of the Catholic Church states that “Medical and scientific experimentation on animals is a morally acceptable practice if it remains within reasonable limits and contributes to caring for or saving human lives.” (Cf. CCC 2417)
But it occurred to me that, by framing the debate entirely in terms of animal rights (and the extent, existence, or nonexistence thereof), we are missing an important dimension of the problem. The issue is not whether animal dignity is being violated by experimentation, but whether human dignity is being debased by a too-ready comparison of the human body with animal flesh. In other words, the more we use lab rats as human analogs, the more we begin to see human beings as glorified lab rats.
This has an important bearing on many of the divisive medical-ethical issues of our time, such as contraception, abortion, cloning, and embryonic stem cell research. More, it extends beyond these to encompass even the most mundane matters of medical practice. Let us take but a single example: Contraception (namely, the “birth control pill”).
The discovery of hormones must have been a complicated and messy process, the final result of which was the understanding that minute amounts of certain chemical messengers were needed to regulate, among other things, the physiological processes of ovulation, conception, and gestation. In order to make these discoveries, many animal experiments needed to be done. Animals were surgically mutilated. Animals and their parts were ground up and put through various chemical fractioning mechanisms. The resulting fractions were injected into other animals and the results catalogued. Finally, these chemicals were synthesized and incorporated into medications, and these too were tested on animals. Is there anyone who believes that the methods employed here did not influence the researchers’ objectives? After realizing their capacity to manipulate animal life at a fundamental level, how could they then not turn their eye to the manipulation of human life as though it were some vast experiment?
I submit that this is exactly how our culture came to embrace the techniques of hormonal contraception, true fruit of the eugenics movement and its concomitant social dysfunctions. Before one can begin to contemplate such things, the human body must be reduced to mere material, to a set of endocrinological processes considered apart from their integration into a person. From there, it is but a small step to eliminating the person entirely from the field of view, and to looking upon the processes themselves as key. With that, self-styled elites rise up who would fain manage the glandular output of humanity in accordance with “scientific” social ends. I doubt not that many a modern liberal looks upon third-worlders, inner-city minorities, and teenagers as “bundles of hormones” upon whom they would lavish contraception in the belief that it would improve their condition, or perhaps even as mere entertainment.
There are some who would object to this, saying (and presuming for argument’s sake that we all believe contraception to be wrong) that the step from animal testing to human implementation is not obvious, and that there is somewhere a moral barrier that has broken down. I disagree, for metaphysics and epistemology precedes morality in the order of understanding. If we cannot define what a person is, we cannot know when we are doing right or wrong by him. Martin Heidegger once wrote that the Nazi Holocaust was the result of the application of the principles of modern agronomy to the problems of population management. Many would consider this a cop-out, but I happen to think his was one of the few analyses that actually addressed the hidden dimension of the problem. It was not only morality that failed, but method. The perfect cure requires not only a good will towards one’s neighbor, but “releasement” from the thought-forms of modernity, under the auspices of which we have no neighbor, but only social atoms.
Animal testing has contributed to this epistemic catastrophe. Perhaps it therefore ought to be reconsidered. I still maintain that this is a novel approach to the question, even though the idea of human beings as pitiful lab rats is a familiar enough trope in modern social satire. Hitherto we have been using those images as mere metaphors. The novelty is the shocking understanding that the metaphor has now become the literal truth.