Animal Testing as a Means of Survival


The morality of animal testing has been widely debated since its origins in Ancient Greece. Testing on animals allows the evaluation of new drugs and procedures without harming humans but raises the question of whether animals should be forcefully used for human gain. This paper recommends that animal testing only be used for approved medical research necessary for human survival and when all other animal-free methods are inadequate. If researchers need to use animal testing, they must scrupulously follow guidelines to minimize animal pain and suffering.


In 1928, bacteriologist Alexander Fleming discovered the antibacterial effect of penicillin, the active agent of Penicillium genus mold, on staphylococci and other pathogens. Fleming tried in vain to isolate penicillin into a therapeutic compound but was never successful. It was more than a decade before a team in Oxford successfully purified penicillin and found successful results through testing on mice [1]. Penicillin is just one of many life-saving discoveries that owe part of their success to animal testing.

Despite these accomplishments, animal testing remains controversial. In 2009, the European Union (EU) banned the use of animals to test cosmetic products and ingredients, and four years later banned the marketing of cosmetic products and ingredients that used animal testing as well [2]. The EU and many other countries have also created legal requirements for animal research and imposed restrictions on when animal testing is permitted.

The answer to this controversy should not be a complete ban on animal testing, nor should it be blind encouragement of animal testing in every environment. Researchers must instead creatively use modern alternatives to animal testing, such as various in vitro studies instead of in vivo studies, and follow a strict set of guidelines when testing on animals. The use of animals in research should be reserved for situations where researchers can confirm their use of animal testing for human survival, prove the insufficiency of animal-free alternatives for their work, and reliably follow guidelines to minimize animal pain and suffering.

Sacrificing Lives for the “Greater Good”

From the development of the Hib vaccine to prevent meningitis to today’s high success rate with kidney transplants, many of today’s medical breakthroughs were made possible through testing on animals [3, 4]. Rabbits were used to create today’s measles-mumps-rubella vaccine, and the World Health Organization estimates that this vaccination alone has saved 17.1 million lives since 2000 [5,6].

From a utilitarian standpoint, animal testing is necessary; utilitarianism emphasizes actions that produce the greatest balance of good over harm, and animal testing has created many benefits for a large number of people [7]. The Humane Society International estimates that over 115 million animals worldwide are used in laboratory experiments every year [8]. Utilitarian analysis of the positive impacts of this testing would lead to the conclusion that the benefits reaped outweigh the lost animal lives, as the World Health Organization reported that vaccinations prevented at least 10 million deaths between 2010 and 2015 and protected millions more lives from illness [9]. Combined with the lives saved through other tested medical procedures and treatments, animal testing has created an enormous force for the good of humankind. Ninety percent of veterinary drugs used to treat animals are identical or incredibly similar to the ones used to treat humans, so animal-tested drugs can save animal lives as well [10, 11].

Furthermore, economic analysis of animal testing shows that vaccinations have resulted in economic benefits of almost $69 billion in the United States, with an estimated $586 billion in reducing costs of illness and $1.53 trillion with consideration of broader economic benefits [12]. Although over 115 million animal deaths represent a significant toll, both the human lives saved and the economic gains facilitated by animal testing outweigh its harms.

However, this does not paint the entire picture. Although human and animal populations benefit from sacrificing animals, the reasoning behind using animals for human gain remains a bit dubious. Conducting the same animal experiments on humans could be considered a violation of human rights, so the argument that performing experiments on animals does not violate their rights seems contradictory. This observation then raises the question: do animals also have rights?

The Case for Animal Rights

Although utilitarianism allows exploration of the consequences of animal testing, the framework fails to address individual rights. The Rights Approach, on the other hand, is designed to protect individual rights, even if many would benefit from infringing on those rights [13]. Furthermore, this approach considers individuals as more than means to others’ ends [7].

Eighteenth century philosopher Immanuel Kant argued that there are two kinds of rights: positive and negative. Positive rights obligate others to act with respect to the holder of the rights; for instance, an individual’s right to education imposes a duty on others to provide that person with education. Negative rights forbid others from acting against the holder of the rights, such as the right to freedom of speech, which prevents others from suppressing that person’s expression. However, the rights framework discusses rights only in terms of humans, not animals, and may not even apply to animals at all.

To begin this exploration, let us consider if animals have rights. The case against animal rights often begins with the assertion that animals lack consciousness: in the 1600s, famed French philosopher René Descartes asserted that animals are non-sentient “automata” and do not have self-consciousness. His opinions influenced later philosophers such as Nicolas Malebrache, who stated that “[animals] eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it; they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing” [14]. However, modern research and basic interactions with animals have shown that they do possess consciousness.

Merriam-Webster defines consciousness as “the quality or state of being aware especially of something within oneself” [15]. Based on this widely accepted definition, animals certainly have consciousness. Consider a robot with a motion sensor compared to an animal: the motion sensor can detect motion, but the robot likely does not recognize that it is carrying out the act of motion sensing. Animals, on the other hand, do consciously react to motion and other stimuli through fight, flight, or curiosity – just as humans do [16].

In addition to his ideas on positive and negative rights, Immanuel Kant also argued that because human beings have free will, their choices should be fundamentally accepted [17]. If this is the criteria, then the Rights Approach extends to animals, too. Animals have the consciousness required to react and make decisions and thus have free will to choose what to do with their lives; therefore, animals should also have rights, and their decisions should be respected.

The Value of Human Rights versus Animal Rights

The idea of rights inherently implies that others have a responsibility to uphold and protect these rights. However, why are humans obligated to uphold animal rights? Non-human animals are not forced to extend these rights to other animals. For instance, predators will fight and kill other animals to keep control over their territory, even though this may be a violation of another animal’s right to well-being or right to property.

In her book An Intelligent Person’s Guide to Ethics, Mary Warnock wrote: “May [animals] be hunted? To this the answer is no, not by humans; but presumably their rights are not infringed if they are hunted by animals other than human beings… If all animals had a right to freedom to live their lives without molestation, then someone would have to protect them from one another. But this is absurd…” [18]. Animals, even within their same species, typically do not protect each other’s rights. So, why should humans be held to a higher standard?

Merriam-Webster defines mammals as any “warm-blooded higher vertebrates that nourish their young with milk secreted by mammary glands, have the skin usually more or less covered with hair” [19]. By this definition, humans are akin to monkeys, dogs, or any other mammal; therefore, humans have no moral obligation to uphold animal rights just as non-human animals do not for other animals. It would not make sense, however, to deem that animals have rights but not try to uphold them. If humans felt no obligation to uphold animal rights, then there would have been no reason to say they have “rights” in the first place.

The next question to consider is what rights animals have. Given that humans are also animals, suppose that animal rights are the same as human rights, and humans are morally obligated to protect them. In 1948, the United Nations adopted the “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” to outline the rights that every person should have. If animals were to receive equal protection of these rights, then human rights would be in danger. For example, Article 5 of the declaration asserts, “No one shall be subjected to torture or to cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment” [20]. Although this sounds like a reasonable goal, the belief that Article 5 also extends to animals threatens this right for humans. The point of testing on animals is to refine new drugs and procedures before using them on humans, as many of these procedures are risky. If researchers were to use humans instead, then they would be knowingly subjecting humans to potentially fatal treatments and violating their Article 5 rights.

Now, suppose that researchers cannot find any human volunteers and are forced to solely use animal-free and human-free alternatives to research. The results of creating new drugs and procedures without testing on live subjects could be the most unethical course of action, as releasing untested research to the public could be disastrous. Similarly, halting drug and vaccination production because of testing limitations could also be a violation of a person’s right to the “health and well-being of himself and his family, including food, clothing, housing, and medical care…” [20].

Today, many modern alternatives to animal research exist, such as engineered microchips called “organs-on-a-chip” that simulate the function of human organs. Amazing developments like this may encourage hope that animal testing will no longer be needed, but unfortunately this is not true. In a recent interview, the director of the Erasmus Center for Animal Research, Martje Fentener van Vlissingen, emphasized that animal testing cannot be fully eliminated because its alternatives lack full equivalence [21]. For instance, the organs-on-a-chip cannot “model the immune system” or “inter-organ metabolic homeostasis” [22]. In addition, drugs can have unpredictable effects on the body; they may positively impact one organ, negatively impact others, or have no effects at all [22]. Thus, in order to fully understand the effects of certain drugs and vaccines, researchers must look at their impact on the entire organism. If researchers cannot use animals or humans to continue crucial medical research, then they are effectively violating human rights because those in need no longer have the access to proper medical care.

However, this idea also raises the question of what constitutes proper medical care. Are there cases when medical applications should not be allowed to use animal testing? Would these cases be a violation of human rights? In order to explore these questions, we should first explore the conditionality of rights. Although humans and animals may be bestowed certain rights as outlined in policies like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, these rights are not absolute.

The Conditionality of Rights

Although humans have inherent rights, they are conditional. In history, we see that rights often depend on general circumstances and individual actions. During economic downturns, many individuals lose their houses and jobs, which then affects their access to food, clothing, and medical care. Humans are supposed to have access to all of these resources, but sometimes it is not possible to meet these demands. Similarly, Article 20 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, “Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association” [20]. However, early COVID-19 regulations forbade individuals from gathering in large groups. Although this policy infringes on individuals’ rights, it is also designed for their protection. In regards to limitations on the right to assembly, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association recently wrote, “Restrictions based on public health concerns are justified, where they are necessary and proportionate in light of the circumstances” [23]. So, even the United Nations recognizes that rights are contingent based on the situation. Although we try our best to uphold them, it is not always possible.

The problem of protecting animal rights versus human rights ultimately boils down to priorities, and the answer reflects the very nature of our survival. Although humans should try to uphold animal rights, animal rights are also contingent. In certain cases, animal testing must be used in order to uphold human rights – rights to safety, well-being, and security.

However, although we acknowledge the conditionality of animal rights, animal rights should not be exploited for every health concern. In situations where animal-free alternatives are adequate substitutions, and where the research is not a matter of human survival, animals should not be used. Killing animals without the promise of saving human lives is neither justified from a utilitarian perspective, where the net benefits must outweigh the initial costs, nor by the Rights framework, under which animals’ individual rights would be violated.

The Proper Approach to Animal Testing

Although animal testing is sometimes needed to uphold human rights, humans should still strive to minimize animal suffering and their use in experiments. With this in mind, this paper proposes a new approach to animal testing. First, countries should adopt policies that limit the use of animal testing, and institutional review boards must evaluate the validity of all research claiming to need animal testing. If the animal research is not related to human survival, then animal rights should not be violated. Second, researchers must prove why other animal-free alternatives are insufficient for their experiments. Finally, researchers who incorporate animal models into their studies must delineate a protocol to minimize pain and suffering of the animal subjects.

Part 1: Validity of Research

Defining criteria for the justification of animal testing is a difficult task, but European regulations can be used as a model. Europe requires two types of ethical permission to conduct animal studies: an initial project license to cover a period of at most five years and the approval of local review bodies that evaluate the necessity of the research [22]. Other governing bodies should adopt similar practices to protect the welfare of animals as well as encourage researchers to continue innovating animal-free alternatives. In addition, institutional review boards should consider these new measures when evaluating biomedical research and understand the animal-free alternatives that scientists can use.

Some scientists may see these restrictions as hindrances to their experiments, as they take away some of the researchers’ flexibility to complete projects. However, these protocols are necessary to respect animal rights and can extend benefits to researchers as well. Non-animal experiments are often cheaper and more effective than those with animals, so carefully considering other methods could be advantageous for scientists [24].

One example of an industry that uses animal testing but does not have a demonstrated need per this criterion is the cosmetic industry. Although animal rights are not absolute, violating animal rights for purely recreational use is not justified.

A more nuanced example is treatment for macular degeneration, or degeneration of the retina. Although research on vision mostly uses animal testing, this type of research is not necessary for survival and therefore does not justify the harm of animals. However, this does not mean that there is no hope for progress. In fact, researchers have discovered successful alternatives ranging from stem cell research to use of cultured retinal pigmented epithelium cells.

Part 2: Animal-Free Alternatives

Today, there are many equally effective or superior alternatives to animal testing. Ceetox, a company that specializes in in vitro toxicological assays and screening data, developed a method to determine a substance’s potential to cause skin allergies in humans [25, 26]. It incorporates a 3-dimensional human cell-derived skin model that replicates key traits of human skin. This allows scientists to avoid using animals but still evaluate allergic responses to substances [26].

Similarly, devices created by German-based manufacturer VITROCELL are other alternatives to testing on animals. For example, one kind of VITROCELL machine is designed to test the effects of inhaled substances on human cells. Cells are exposed to airborne chemicals on one side of the machine while the other side receives nutrients from a blood-like liquid. This simulates the workings of a human lung without requiring the need for animals.

Developments such as Ceetox and VITROCELL prove that the safety of new drugs and medical procedures can be validated without animal testing. With these modern advancements, researchers should have no excuse to violate animal rights when equally effective, non-invasive methods exist [24].

Part 3: Minimizing Pain for Animals

Certain kinds of research, such as finding a life-saving vaccine for COVID-19, require animals, but the experiments must minimize animal suffering. Scientists should work with the approving research review board to determine how pain can be minimized without interfering with the results of the study. Minimizing the suffering of animal subjects is both humane and ethical. Just as we treat humans in experiments with respect and care, the same should be extended to the animals whose lives we sacrifice. These measures are important to remind scientists that animals are more than inconsequential means to our ends.

Looking to the Future

Restrictions on when animal testing is permissible, as well as stricter guidelines to regulate animal testing, are necessary to achieve the more humane treatment of animals. Finding new methods calls on researchers to consider all non-animal alternatives with greater intention, and it encourages greater innovation to solve difficult problems.

The phrase “necessity is the mother of invention” is the perfect characterization of researchers’ quests to find non-animal alternatives to biomedical research. Prior to pushback from animal rights activists, scientists were relatively complacent in their use of animal experimentation. It was not until mounting pressure from animal rights activists in the late 20th century that scientists were pushed to find animal-free alternatives.

In an ideal world, humans would not need to compromise animal rights in order to sustain their own, but current technology has not allowed us to achieve this yet. From incurable diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis to the global pandemic ravaging the world, researchers are fighting to devise creative solutions to impossible problems. However, in doing so, they must use animals as humanely and minimally as possible until new, non-animal methods are developed.

By Isabelle Lau, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California

About the Author

At the time of writing this paper, Isabelle Lau was a junior majoring in Computer Engineering and Computer Science at USC. She is actively involved in USC’s chapter of the Society of Women Engineers and loves to cook and bake, surf, explore the great outdoors, and read in her free time.


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Links for Further Reading