Shmuly Yanklowitz

Animal testing? The ethics of research!

Do you know where your lipstick comes from?

For centuries, medical research has involved testing on animals. Today new technological developments, financial, and ethical considerations are challenging the long-standing argument that animal research is necessary for the future treatment of disease.

While some ancient Greeks experimented with animals, Galen of Pergamum, a physician who lived during the Roman Empire (2nd century CE), was perhaps the first to systematic use animals for research. The physician Ibn Zuhr also conducted experiments with animals in preparation for human surgery during the Moorish domination of Spain in the 12th century CE. However, animal experiments were not conducted in Europe until about the 16th century CE. English philosopher Francis Bacon (1561-1626), was among the first to justify animal experiments, including the dissection of live animals. This attitude was also endorsed by the Jewish Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677), but opposed by the Enlightenment philosopher John Locke, who believed that children should be taught to respect all animal life so they would not exercise cruelty against people as adults. Other philosophers of the Enlightenment, such as Voltaire and Rousseau, shared this revulsion of animal experiments, which they deemed cruel and ruthless. animal testing image 1

Despite these admonitions, animal experimentation took off in the 19th century, buoyed by the idea that knowledge could only be gained by useful, well-designed experiments – an idea popularized by Claude Bernard (1813-1878), the “father of physiology” and a strong believer that any toxic effect of a drug would be the same in animals as in humans.

Bernard’s teacher, Francois Magendi (1783-1855) was notorious for his cruel and unusual experiments, such as nailing the paws of a dog down, dissecting the nerves of the dog’s face, and then leaving the dog nailed down for further dissection the next day. Even after anesthesia came into use, Magendi did not use it on animals. An American physician described Magendi’s cold cruelty in graphic terms:

Monsieur M. has not only lost all feeling for the victims he tortures, but he really likes his business. When the animal squeaks a little, the operator grins; when loud screams are uttered, he sometimes laughs outright . . .During another lecture, in demonstrating the functions of the motive and sensitive fibers of the spinal nerves, he laid bare the spinal cord in a young pup, and cut one bundle after another of nerves.

Cruelty such as this led to the British Parliament’s passage of the first law ever to regulate the treatment of animals in experiments – the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876. Magendi’s behavior strikes us today as disturbingly similar to the actions of the most depraved regimes toward their opponents during the past century. animal testing image 3

On the other hand, Bernard, Magendi’s pupil, was a close friend of Louis Pasteur, “the father of microbiology,” who was much more cognizant of animal suffering than his predecessors, and his research helped human as well as animal medical care, although he needed to infect animals to test his vaccines. Among other notable scientists who used animals while developing treatments for serious conditions was Paul Ehrlich, who used mice to produce his Salvasaran drug for the treatment of syphilis. He also experimented on millions of primates before the polio vaccine was ready for use in the 1950s. To produce the vaccine, more than 100,000 monkeys were killed (one killed monkey produced 65 doses of the vaccine). It should also be noted that the polio vaccine was tested on prisoners and institutionalized children as well, which should have raised additional moral issues.

Of all the issues concerning medical research involving animals, the use of primates has garnered the most objections recently. While more than three-fourths of the Nobel Prizes awarded for Medicine or Physiology have had a direct connection with animal research, the most recent use of primates in a Nobel Prize-winning endeavor occurred in 1981. Harvard Medical School, which was cited by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for primate mistreatment, has pledged to close its primate research center by 2015, but denies this is tied to the violations cited. On a federal level, the National Institutes of Health intends to greatly reduce its funding of chimpanzee studies. While great apes garner support, rodents have a harder time finding advocates. The western phobia of rodents has led to mice and rats being thought of as second-class animals, and their numbers have soared in research.

Europe is ahead in terms of banning primate research and standardizing better treatment for animals. European scientists have endorsed the Three Rs (Reduction, Refinement, Replacement), created by William Russell and Rex Burch. Improving experimental and data technique, along with sharing information, can reduce the use of animals; less invasive techniques and better conditions and care for animals can refine the research process; and in vitro research, computer models, and epidemiologic studies can replace animals as subjects. In addition, in 2010, the European Union passed regulations to standardize and improve the conditions for animals during experiments. animal testing image 2

Meanwhile, the United States is heading in a different direction. A scandal involving deaths by poisonous drugs led to the passage of the 1938 Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act, which requires the testing of new drugs on animals to prove they are safe before being marketed to the public. The Animal Welfare Act of 1966 finally provided some regulation for some animals in research, but it offers scant protection for most animals involved in experiments (discussed later in this article).

Today, the debate continues. Nearly all researchers support animal testing, maintaining that it is vital to develop new treatments for diseases and that animals are the closest to humans in producing similar clinical results in tests. In addition to the treatments previously discussed, researchers cite insulin, cancer and tuberculosis treatments, and even medical devices such as pacemakers, as owing their existence to animal testing. Moreover, they defend current testing on chimpanzees as the best way to obtain a future vaccine for hepatitis C. Many researchers do not believe that in vitro (growing tissues in Petri dishes, for example) or computer analysis can perform at the same level as testing on animals, as there are certain conditions (e.g., hypertension) that cannot be determined using these methodologies. Researchers also believe that using animals is preferable to exposing humans to the potential adverse effects of experimental treatments. They also assert that animals are protected from needless abuse by regulations, and are even helped via animal testing, as some animal treatments (e.g., Pasteur’s research) have resulted from these experiments.

Opponents counter by saying that 95 percent of animals (e.g., mice, rats, birds, cold-blooded animals and fish) used in experiments are not protected by the Animal Welfare Act. Thus, 25 million experimental animals were unprotected versus 1.1 million protected under this law in 2010. In addition, they cite that the “Three Rs” were created in a book published in 1959, and American norms still lag behind any acceptable standard. As a result, many animals used in research experience pain without any anesthesia, food/water deprivation, long periods of being held in restraints, being burned or cut to test healing, and being killed by gas or decapitation, among other means. In addition, there is rarely any contingency to rescue the animals in the event of a natural disaster. During Hurricane Sandy, thousands of lab mice drowned when the New York University basement flooded.

Animals are also used to test cosmetics, an immoral and (increasingly) indefensible practice. In the Draize eye test, which is used to test how cosmetics irritate the eyes, rabbits are put in stocks and their eyes are pinned open, sometimes for several days, while cosmetics and shampoos are placed in their eyes to see the reaction. The immense pain caused by this is cruel and completely unnecessary. While some progress has been made here, certain companies still employ this barbaric test. animal testing image 4

Opponents also note that new developments have invalidated the old arguments for the use of animals. Since in vitro testing can now be done with human tissues, it is superior to animal testing. Humans can be spared from adverse effects by better methods, such as giving a fraction of the usual dose and then having the patient’s blood analyzed. Artificial skin, grown from human cells, is already available and superior to animal models, and soon there will be human cell-derived (microfluidic chips) materials to mimic human organs.

In addition, opponents deny the claim, from Claude Bernard on, that animal results are the same as human results. For example, 94 percent of trials that passed animal testing fail in human trials, including 100 drugs for strokes and all 150 clinical trials of anti-inflammatories for patients with critical illnesses. Still, other animal experiments hide serious adverse effects for humans. They note that thalidomide, which caused 10,000 birth defects in humans, did not have adverse effects when tested on animals (while proponents claim it was not tested enough), and that Vioxx, which caused 27,000 deaths from cardiovascular adverse effects in humans, had a paradoxical cardioprotective effect on mice. On the other hand, drugs such as salicylic acid (aspirin) and tacrolimus (used to lower the risk of organ transplantation rejection) are harmful to some animal species but not to humans, and if too much reliance were given to animal experimentation, these drugs might never have been approved.

Even financially, animal studies no longer make sense. Such research costs many times more than alternative methods. Moreover, studies have noted that the vast majority of animal tests do not meet the rigorous criteria of a scientific clinical trial. Thus, they are “bad science” and take up financial resources that could be better spent on other clinical trials using more modern, economical, and ethical methods.

Today, doctors can practice on mannequins rather than on animals. Consider PETA’s recent $1 million donation of mannequins to medical schools to promote more modern training and to save the lives of about 1,000 animals a year. Why practice surgery on stray dogs, goats, sheep, and pigs when you can use a sophisticated human mannequin, avoid needless animal suffering, and achieve more advanced training? Governments in developing countries should offer incentives to use alternative methods (like done in this case), and we shouldn’t need to rely on non-profits to make donations like this one.


Jeremy Bentham, father of modern utilitarianism, was already looking forward to discrimination issues to emerge in the coming centuries.

The day may come when the rest of the animal creation may acquire those rights which never could have been withholden from them but by the hand of tyranny. The French have already discovered that the blackness of the skin is no reason why a human being should be abandoned without redress to the caprice of a tormentor. It may one day come to be recognized that the number of legs, the villosity of the skin, or the termination of the os sacrum, are reasons equally insufficient for abandoning a sensitive being to the same fate. What else is it that should trace the insuperable line? Is it the faculty of reason, or perhaps the faculty of discourse? But a full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison, a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose they were otherwise, what would it avail. The question is not, Can they reason? nor Can they talk? but Can they suffer?

Peter Singer, a Philosophy Professor at Princeton has been particularly vocal on issues of animal welfare:

If a being suffers, there can be no moral justifications for refusing to take that suffering into consideration. No matter what the nature of the being, the principle of equality requires that the suffering be counted equally with the like suffering – in so far as rough comparisons can be made – of any other being.

He has argued strongly against many forms of animal testing:

Nor can all university experiments be defended on the grounds that they relieve more suffering than they inflict….In these cases, and many others like them, the benefits to humans are either non-existent or very uncertain; while the losses to members of other species are certain and real.…would the opponent of experimentation be prepared to let thousands die from a terrible disease that could be cured only by experimenting on one animal? This is a purely hypothetical question, because no experiment could ever be predicted to have such dramatic results, but so long as its hypothetical nature is clear, I think the question should be answered affirmatively – in other words, if one, or even a dozen animals had to suffer experiments in order to save thousands, I would think it right and in accordance with equal consideration of interests that they should do so. (Practical Ethics, 57).

Yet, Singer has not been an absolutist on animal research. When neuroscientist Tipu Aziz explained to Singer that “To date 40,000 people have been made better with this (Parkinson’s therapy), and worldwide at the time I would guess only one hundred monkeys were used at a few laboratories,” he responded:

Well, I think if you put a case like that, clearly I would have to agree that was a justifiable experiment. I do not think you should reproach yourself for doing it, provided – I take it you are the expert in this, not me – that there was no other way of discovering this knowledge. I could see that as justifiable research.

Philosophers have primarily argued for animal welfare on grounds of equality of rights, sentience, and compassion. Singer has argued for equal treatment based upon sentience. More particular to animal research, the primary claims have been:

  1. Humans do not benefit enough from animal research
  2. There is a low success rate to animal research
  3. There are significant alternatives in research to using animals
  4. Animals have a moral status

Each of these claims is worth further investigation. While some thinkers (like Tom Regan and Evelyn Pluhar) advocate for the complete abolition of all research that involves hurting animals, others (like Ray Frey and Peter Singer) argue for an utilitarian standard only accepting experiments where the benefits (while factoring in the likelihood of achieving them) can be anticipated to outweigh the harms involved. David Degrazia takes another approach: animal testing image 5

I therefore have respect for progressive views that attribute moral standing to animals without giving them fully equal consideration. The unequal consideration view that I find most plausible gives moral weight to animals’ comparable interests in accordance with the animals’ cognitive, affective, and social complexity – a progressive, “sliding scale” view, (The Ethics of Animal Research, 25).

No one can dismiss that animals have the ability to experience enormously high levels of pain, suffering, distress, fear, and even death in research or that some protections and regulations must be put in place. This is all the more true given the fact that a considerable amount of the current research done on animals has no chance of ever helping humans. animal testing image 6

Jewish Thought

The Jewish tradition has been adamant that we must not inflict needless suffering on animals and the Ohr Hachaim Hakadosh says, “we have no right to kill an animal needlessly,” (Leviticus 17:11). But, of course, when it comes to saving human lives, Jewish authorities will argue that animal suffering in medical research can be necessary. The Rema was specific (Even Ha-Ezer 5:19 in the name of the Terumat Ha-Deshen 105): “For any medical or other need, there is no prohibition of tzaar ba’alei chayim (causing pain to an animal). It is therefore permitted to pull out the feathers from a live duck, and there is no concern for tzaar baalei chayim.” However, the Rema adds, “nonetheless, the custom is to refrain from this practice [of pulling out feathers], because it is cruel.”

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch said, “here you are faced with God’s teaching, which obliges you not only to refrain from inflicting unnecessary pain on any animal, but to help and, when you can, to lessen the pain whenever you see an animal suffering, even through no fault of yours,” (Horeb, Chapter 60, Sect. 416). It’s taught in the Minchat Chinuch (80) that “there is not only a prohibition of causing pain to animals, but there is also an obligation to prevent their pain wherever possible.” While there may be a right to conduct animal testing to produce life-saving research, there is still a duty to reduce all animal suffering at all costs.

There is no justification today to test cosmetics or non-essential products on animals. Furthermore, alternative options should be explored and used when possible. We should only test on animals if absolutely necessary for potentially saving a human’s life. Pkuach nefesh (saving human life) is one of the highest Jewish values, so if animal research is the only way to achieve this goal of saving life, then Jewish law says it must be done. But suffering should always be minimized and other options should be explored. We must reject the current levels of use of animals in research without dismissing the tragic but sometimes necessary animal research itself. The United States should at least follow the standards of the European Union. Jewish leaders should be vocal that we prioritize both the best research for saving and healing humans and respect for the sentience of animals. This is what our tradition mandates.

Researchers and enforcing agencies must publicly acknowledge that the ethical concerns involving animals are significant, they must be educated about these ethical issues, and they must stop disseminating propaganda that only shows one side of the story. The animal welfare community, in turn, should give credit where it is due for industries that minimize animal testing and cruelty wherever possible. The government, businesses, and non-profit agencies should support investments in new research methodologies and alternatives to animal research that eliminate the need for animal suffering. The Jewish community should be at the forefront advocating for more ethical research and the protection of animals.


Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the Executive Director of the Valley Beit Midrash, the Founder &President of Uri L’Tzedek, the Founder and CEO of The Shamayim V’Aretz Institute and the author of “Jewish Ethics & Social Justice: A Guide for the 21st Century.” Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America.”

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. Shmuly Yanklowitz is the President & Dean of the Valley Beit Midrash (Jewish pluralistic adult learning & leadership), the Founder & President of Uri L’Tzedek (Jewish Social Justice), the Founder and CEO of Shamayim (Jewish animal advocacy), the Founder and President of YATOM, (Jewish foster and adoption network), and the author of 22 books on Jewish ethics. Newsweek named Rav Shmuly one of the top 50 rabbis in America and the Forward named him one of the 50 most influential Jews. The opinions expressed here represent the author’s and do not represent any organizations he is affiliated with.