‘Animal abuse? I don’t look at it that way. It’s not testing cosmetics. It’s trying to save my life.”
So says Eileen Youtie, a breast cancer patient who, according to a Dec. 14 report from the Associated Press, is paying more than $30,000 to test various chemotherapy drugs on mice before they are used on her. One reason for the huge expense? The mice must be bred to rapidly develop her very specific kind of cancer.
Patients like Eileen must often choose between several different kinds of cancer drug regimens. If the first one does not work, patients may often be too weak or sick to try a second. Enter the concept of the “mouse avatar.”
Now available through private laboratories for personal drug testing, it is just one of many rapidly developing animal-based biomedical techniques used today. The mice that Youtie paid to be bred with cancer are just a few of the more than 25 million animals used in U.S. laboratories each year.
From drug safety studies on guinea pigs, pet food trials on dogs and chemotherapy testing on mice, biomedical research has relied on the use of animals for many decades. But despite the efforts in recent years by dedicated veterinary and laboratory animal care professionals to find alternatives to animal research, the number of animals being used in research is actually increasing in the developed West.
If earnest attempts are being made to cut animal use—including a landmark decision by the National Institutes of Health in 2012 to halt most research with chimpanzees (see sidebar, pg. 16)—to what can we attribute the increase? And what are the moral guidelines for the discussion of this complicated issue?
Increased use of small animals in research, in particular mice and rats, has coincided with game-changing advances in biotechnology. Both inbreeding and direct manipulation of genes at the nuclear level now allow for the creation of new animal “lines” never seen before.
By targeting individual genes along an animal’s chromosome, scientists are now able to produce animals that will be born with or develop diseases, such as diabetes, neuromuscular dystrophy and breast cancer. With these new advances have come remarkable gains in understanding and treatment of illnesses that otherwise might not have been possible. Scott A. Armstrong, head of the Memorial Sloan Kettering Leukemia Center, was recently honored with the Paul Marks Prize for Cancer Research based in part on special lines of mice he engineered to develop leukemia. Similarly, rat lines engineered for a multiple sclerosis-like illness have been fundamental in the advancement of promising human therapies.
The developments needed for creation of genetically altered animals in research have come rapidly over the past two decades—not only because of the promising horizons for medical advancement but also because of the enormous potential for profit. Biotech companies using these animals play a key role in the portfolios of top-shelf private and public investors. While there has been a sincere effort to continuously strive for decreased use of animals, the promise of medical progress using genetically engineered, animal-based techniques is now pulling demand for laboratory animals in new and sometimes troubling directions.
Of all the cogs in the global biomedical research wheel, none is more directly affected by these new techniques than the animals themselves. Researchers, for example, are now able to modify pig embryos in the womb so that their pancreas never develops, in the hopes that these animals will be useful for future organ transplantation. Similarly, scientists studying dementia can purchase rat “Alzheimer models” from commercial laboratories. Prior to shipment, a slow release pump system is inserted into the rat’s brain, injecting toxic compounds over four weeks. The resulting brain damage is said to mimic Alzheimer symptoms.
One cannot help but note that these animals have become a pure commodity: designed, assembled, modified and sold.
Fortunately, concerns over animal suffering and distress have led to significant changes in research settings over recent decades. A strong culture of care for animals often surpasses the minimum standards set by current government regulations. Hard-won animal welfare changes have come not only as a result of animal protection groups but also through the efforts of people who work in these research sectors. Yet despite these positive steps, many people still have a viscerally negative response to these highly invasive, life-altering interventions.
Until now, much of the public debate around animal research was rooted in a utilitarian approach, one that weighs the negative effects on the animals against the potential gains for science and medicine. If researchers have a growing commitment to reduce pain and suffering in laboratory animals and to improve the quality of their life in the laboratory, then it may seem there are no more big questions to ask. From the utilitarian perspective, especially given the great gains for medicine, should we perhaps simply follow this same trajectory?
We do not agree. Even if we allow that non-human animals may be used in some medical research, and even if we make reasonable attempts to control their pain and suffering, what we have seen above simply cries out for us to correct course.
The radical new capability to “reengineer” the DNA of animals is something that Emory University bioethicist Paul Root Wolpe describes as the “third wave” of planetary evolution. Though some would see this shift as consistent with the “dominion” given to humanity over creation, the Catholic moral tradition suggests otherwise. The encyclical “On Social Concerns” (1987) insists that “dominion granted to man by the Creator is not an absolute power, nor can one speak of a freedom to ‘use and misuse,’ or to dispose of things as one pleases” (No. 34). “Charity in Truth” (2009) adds that we must avoid aiming “at total technical dominion over nature, because the natural environment is more than raw material to be manipulated at our pleasure; it is a wondrous work of the Creator containing a ‘grammar’ which sets forth ends and criteria for its wise use, not its reckless exploitation” (No. 48).
The idea that creation has a grammar suggests one of the beautiful and important concepts of Catholic moral theology, namely teleology. Teleology speaks to the understanding that each living creature has an intrinsic nature, the pursuit of which results in the creature’s flourishing. An animal is different from a hammer, for instance, because a hammer has been created for one purpose: to be a tool for human beings. It has no intrinsic goodness apart from this instrumental value. By contrast, God created animals “good,” period, to flourish in their own right as the kinds of things they are. Each animal has her own nature, or telos, which God intends her to achieve in its fullness. Indeed, Scripture explains that ultimate salvation will result in a new heaven and a new earth in which all creatures will be redeemed and live out their most flourishing selves. This is an essential insight as we enter into the era of biotechnology that lies before us.
A purely utilitarian framework is inadequate to address an era in which we can fundamentally alter the capacity of creatures to be the kinds of things that they are. The British Christian ethicist David Clough makes this point with the following example[from his essay in John Perry, ed, God, the Good and Utilitarianism, 2014]:
Last week I found a young bird dead at our doorstep. My response was one of sadness, not because the bird at the moment of its death had a preference for its life to continue, nor because its parents would currently be grieving its loss, neither of which may be true, but because I had a sense of the life ahead of this poor creature, of its growth to maturity and the particular contribution it should have made to the universe of creaturely life.... The death of that young bird is sad not because preferences went unmet, or the sum of happiness was infinitesimally diminished, but because this one life did not reach the end to which it was ordered.
Respecting Animals, Curing Disease
In “The Joy of the Gospel,” Pope Francis speaks of “creation as a whole” when he lifts up “weak and defenseless beings” who are “frequently at the mercy” of “indiscriminate exploitation.” But how should we balance concern for laboratory animals with concern for sick human beings? When does legitimate research cross the line into exploitation? When might respect for the flourishing of an animal trump concern for human health? With his upcoming encyclical on ecology, the pope will have an excellent opportunity to set up a framework to consider some of these questions.
In the meantime, we propose some principles that could govern such a discussion. First and foremost, the basic and independent goodness of animals must be taken into deeper consideration. Animals are not mere tools or commodities, and respect for their goodness goes far beyond not causing them to suffer. It means at least not hampering—and perhaps even aiding—their ability to be the kinds of creatures God intended them to be.
Some animal rights activists argue that halting some, or all, animal research would not hinder our ability to treat human disease. This is empirically false. Aside from examples mentioned above, there are countless others that demonstrate the immense contributions that animal research has made in the quest to treat and cure human disease.
But the landscape has changed. We are now capable of animal procedures and cell manipulation that even two decades ago were unimaginable to most of us. As we develop new biotechnological capabilities, moral concern for the flourishing of nonhuman animals invites us to reflect more deeply on what “respect for the integrity of creation” means. This will not be easy in the field of biomedical science; nor will the line be clear between acceptable use of animals and unacceptable misuse.
Ultimately, we must face the uncomfortable fact that some promising medical research will likely be slowed, or perhaps even halted altogether, until we engage in a process of thoughtful moral and ethical consideration. This will be true especially for Catholic universities and other research institutions, which must do some hard thinking about their ultimate concerns. Are they governed by their stated mission and goals—or do other concerns take precedence?
And here we need to be careful to resist a primordial form of idolatry: the temptation to extend life at all costs. The examples of the martyrs and, naturally, of Jesus himself demonstrate that there are some concerns that ought to trump a desire to have longer human lives. Concern about the wholesale commodification of animals, particularly when it involves biotechnology—which can fundamentally alter an animal’s entire being and life experience—is one of those concerns.
There is an urgent need for a diverse, interdisciplinary exploration of what it means to value laboratory animals as the kinds of beings they are. Happily, more and more secular biologists and ethicists are promoting the concept of animal teleology, emphasizing respect for the unique behaviors and nature of every species. Here is an important opportunity, therefore, to engage in collaborative reflection, which may light the way for engaging in biomedical research along a different path.
Experimenting on Chimps
After decades of chimpanzee use in research, the National Institutes of Health commissioned a study to look at ongoing needs for chimpanzees in biomedical research labs. The 2011 report, “Chimpanzees in Biomedical and Behavioral Research: Assessing the Necessity,” urged major restrictions on the use of chimpanzees, which are resulting in the retirement from active research of a vast majority of government-owned chimps.
The report argues that chimpanzees, because of their close proximity to humans, require much higher standards to justify their use in research. Chimps demonstrate self-awareness, anticipation of the future, deep and rich social lives, and even a vocabulary of hundreds of American Sign Language words—words that mothers can also teach their children.
Now, to use chimpanzees, researchers must be able to show not only a strong need for such testing, with no other viable alternative, but also that the research cannot be ethically carried out on human beings as well. This major shift, commented the Johns Hopkins University bioethicist Jeffrey Kahn, “turns the traditional presumption regarding the use of research animals on its head.”