Invisible Voices

a voice for the voiceless

against vivisection: ethics and science

pattrice is hosting a Carnival Against Vivisection, and it is an important topic, as well as one that I don’t talk enough about, and so I’m joining in. Her deadline is September 6th, by the way, if anyone else would like to take part as well.

Vivisection sounds like such a clinical word, doesn’t it? I had never heard the word until I got into animal rights, I think. Yet I have vivid decades-old memories of my first exposure to the idea, if not the word, and that exposure hit me in a very personal way.

I don’t know exactly how old I was. Young, perhaps in middle school. I can’t remember the teacher or the class or why we were being shown this information, but I will never forget the picture of the bunnies being tortured by having absolutely horrible things put in their eyes. For cosmetics.

The ethics of the situation was painfully clear to me at the time, in that pure way that children see the world. There was simply no justification, no possible way that anyone could convince me that there was anything right about what I had seen. If it is required to do such damage to bunnies to make sure make-up was safe for humans to use, then humans should refuse to wear it. That was it for me, the situation was clear.

These thoughts were only in the back of my mind, however, as I reached junior high and started wearing some of that dreaded make-up myself. In that weird mix of self-conscious selfishness, I just didn’t let myself think about it.

In 7th grade I had to watch a film in class. Again, I’m perplexed thinking back, and can’t come up with a reason we would have been required to watch this film in school, but watch it we did. It was devastating.

Project X. Did you see it?

The screenplay’s premise has a fictional air force soldier named Jimmy (played by Matthew Broderick) who, as punishment for “misconduct” involving a romantic interlude in an aircraft cockpit, assigned to a top-secret military project wherein chimpanzees are trained on virtual reality flight simulators, and experiences a crisis of conscience as to the project goals.

Chimpanzees being used in testing for the military, their personalities shining through, and in the end they were treated as if they were completely disposable. We won’t even get into the irony about these chimps being used by the film-makers, and the ethical issues around it. That didn’t occur to me at the time.

All I knew is that what had been done to these animals was wrong. And it didn’t matter that it was just a movie. I knew that these things were happening. Perhaps seeing the devastation to the bunnies had prepared me for this immediate acceptance that things like the project x testing were happening.

In my first exposure to the faces behind vivisection, it was clear that the bunnies were being sacrificed only for the vanity of humans. Well, and also for the profits of the companies, but I was maybe 12. I didn’t think that way then. I find it incomprehensible that vivisection still goes on today for cosmetic products, something that is entirely unnecessary on several levels. First of all, hello! Cosmetics. These are not exactly necessary for anyone’s survival. And second of all, there are many options out there for cosmetics that have not been tested on animals, and these options are continuously growing. There is no excuse.

Cosmetics seem like a slam dunk to me, in terms of my expectation that there should be universal condemnation of animal testing on cosmetics.

That’s my naivete showing. Those same companies are still testing, and those same companies are still in business because women and men keep buying their bloody products.

The second example, with the chimps, could have been murkier. The testing being performed on them was supposed to help keep air force pilots alive in extreme conditions. These extreme conditions were situations the pilots might be subjected to if, say, a nuclear war started, and they were trying to protect the ever important country of America. (yes, that is sarcasm.) (and yes, the movie dealt in cold war themes, it was from the 80’s!)

It was not murky to me at the time, perhaps because I was facing these wonderful individuals, who were forced to live in an underground prison. They’d done nothing wrong, they simply wanted to live, and one can safely assume they actually wanted to live somewhere outside and green, yet they were seen as things, to be sacrificed. The air force pilots, on the other hand, were accepting their own risks. Their decision, which meant that even if they had to pay “the ultimate price”, it was their choice that put them in the situation to begin with. Not so for the chimps. And so it was not murky to me.

Funny, because if Hoot is considered soft-core eco-terrorism in today’s political climate, I think it is obvious that Project X would not stand a chance if it was not already made.

I can’t say that watching Project X caused immediate changes in my life, but clearly it has had a multi-decade impact on me, and perhaps laid a piece of the framework of my current animal rights viewpoint.

And who would have thought a Matthew Broderick/Helen Hunt film could do that?

The point I’m trying to get to, in this long drawn out way, is not just that *some* vivisection is completely unnecessary. That’s only the tip of the iceburg. Once you realize that some vivisection is unnecessary, and that the general public has been fed enough bullshit over the years that we placidly accept that these horrors are done for our good, without ever questioning the need for the product itself…once you realize that, it only makes sense to take a closer look at what other lies we’ve been fed.

And that’s where we get to the big one. That animal testing on drugs is necessary for the safety of humans.

I accepted that, without question, even after I began cutting out any product from my life that had animal testing performed on it. I believed, wholeheartedly, that animal testing was absolutely wrong, and yet I still believed that to stop testing these drugs on animals would increase the risk to the humans who wanted to take them. I just figured that was a risk we should take on. And ethically I still think that we should take on our own risks. The problem with the big lie to begin with is that it doesn’t even come close to being scientifically sound.

And I have a biology degree. It is embarrassing, really, that I never stopped to think.

I should have known better, and I would have if I’d thought about it for a second. Drugs, and disease, are scary things, and we like to think that there is some way to make it all safer. We don’t want to question the drug companies or the FDA, we don’t want to learn that all these animal tests are doing nothing to make us safer after all.

There is a safer way, actually, but it is one that alarms people. The way to do drug testing in a way to more safely determine its impact on humans is … to test the drugs on humans. Sounds radical, doesn’t it?

The truth is that this is what happens already, after millions of animals have been pointlessly sacrificed. Pointlessly? Yes, pointlessly. Knowing how a bunny reacts to a drug or a cosmetic tells us with a reasonable certainty how a bunny will react to that drug or cosmetic. Not an absolute certainty because no two individuals of any species actually react exactly the same. So. We know how one bunny reacts, and we might be able to predict how a different bunny would react. But how do we use that information and apply it to humans?

With a complete disregard of both science and ethics, that’s how. Flipping a coin would actually be more accurate, based on the numbers I’ve seen. If you want rather exhaustive information detailing exactly how animal testing has not only not helped further human medical science knowledge, but has also held back the advance of such knowledge, you’d do best to read the Drs. Greek, “Specious Science” and “Sacred Cows, Golden Geese.” They have a newer book (2006) that I have not yet read, but which I plan to pick up, as it looks like another excellent resource, What Will We Do If We Don’t Experiment on Animals?

So after all these animals have been needlessly killed in the desperate pursuit of CYA material in the blind guess of how humans will react to given drugs or chemicals, human trials begin. These human trials are the final stage before the drugs are marketed, and these are people who have volunteered to be part of these trials. The studies are somewhat informative, but because they’re the last stage, they’re often rushed. The drug companies have, at that point, spent so much money on the drugs that they really aren’t prepared to let anything stop the drugs from being put on the market.

They pressure the FDA if the human trials don’t go well. And they continue to exert the pressure on the FDA after the drugs are on the mass market and people start dying from their drugs. These drug companies, showing more of their true colors, continue to exert pressure to stop the FDA from removing the deadly drugs from the market.

What floors me about this process is that we have two very different groups of humans being tested on. The “human trials”, people who have volunteered to take part in the experiment, and then the vast unsuspecting “free market” of people who believe naively that the FDA is not controlled by the drug companies. These are people who choose to take the drugs, but who don’t take them with the knowledge that they are part of a bigger experiment, a large scale drug trial.

That is frightening, at least to me. There is quite a bit of history of vivisection being done on humans, as well. I think we tend to forget that. The concentration camps in Nazi Germany are, perhaps, the most widely known. Perhaps to soothe ourselves we assume that these involuntary experiments will be done on us only if we are living in a repressive regime that cares less for it’s citizens than it does for it’s power, and the wealth of the elite.

Vivisection is difficult to talk about in short bits. There are painfully obvious ethical reasons why it is not right. However, few people know what to say when they are then faced with statements that they themselves might think are still true, such as that the animals killed are helping save human lives. It is false. Read the Drs. Greek for yourself. They spent a decade researching this exhaustively, after coming from the same blind belief that we all did.

But none of us benefit from the animals being killed. Unless you are employed by a vivisector or drug company, of course. These animals are being killed needlessly, pointlessly. Their deaths do not further human medicine, the pursuit of animal death sets back research on human medicine.

And facing the lie, finally seeing that there was no point to the millions (or maybe billions – there are no official numbers, so no one really knows) of deaths of animals each year in experimentation, that shook me to my core. It brings back the picture of the bunnies, my horror at what was happening to those chimps in Project X

If we don’t need to do these things, why are these things being done?


6 responses to “against vivisection: ethics and science

  1. pattricejones September 2, 2008 at 10:11 pm

    Thanks for participating in the carnival!

    Your musings reminded me of my own childhood reactions to reading about them sending dogs and chimps into space. This was in the 1960s, when the space race was a big deal and we were all supposed to feel very excited about somebody sticking a flag on the moon. I remember feeling… uneasy… uncomfortable with the heroic rhetoric… a little bit sickened by all of it.

    Your mention of vivisection and other forms of medical experimentation on non-consenting people reminds me of an incident in my classroom a couple of years ago. As part of the process of learning methods of persuasion, I had students visit websites on opposite sides of the controversial topic of their choice. One student, a young black lesbian whose friend had been killed in a homophobic attack, chose vivisection. After she described the two websites to the class, I asked her which was more persuasive. Instead of answering that question, she said, “I’m against it. How would you feel if they did it to you?” “They *did* do it to us,” said a young woman in the back row. (This is at an historically black college and all of the students in that class were African American.) She told her classmates about the Tuskegee experiments, where black men with syphilis were told they were getting treatment but were not treated — so that the researchers could observe the course of the disease and its transmission to families. The experiment lasted into the 1970s, ending only when it was exposed to the public.

    And don’t get me started on all of the experiments that have been done to non-consenting people with cognitive and mental disabilities! There’s a lot of room for collaboration between anti-vivisection and disability rights activists.

  2. Deb September 3, 2008 at 5:52 pm

    pattrice, thank you so much for reminding me about sputnik, and other animals-in-space “experiments”. That was another vivid childhood memory, where I felt quite betrayed by adults in general to learn that they cared so little for the dogs. My initial assumption (it was tough being so naive) when I learned of Sputnik as a kid was that they brought the dog back just like they would the humans. Boy was I wrong.

    And the medical experimentation on people in this country, the Tuskegee experiments, that is another excellent point. I learned about that more recently – maybe that was described in “the dreaded comparison”?

    I think that medical and biochemical experiments are performed on unsuspecting people more often than we imagine. I bet agent orange would fall under that category, not to mention all the poisons dumped in our environments with neither our input nor our knowledge, let alone our agreement.

    The issue seems to expand the more you think about it. There is definitely room for collaboration across many movements. The experiments on people with cognitive and mental disabilities is one aspect I’m less educated on. Maybe you can post about that sometime!

  3. Kate September 5, 2008 at 1:38 pm

    The depths of ethical compromise at the FDA is astonishing. When I try to describe the things I heard about while working at a public-interest law firm specialising in whistleblower cases, I must sound like a wide-eyed paranoiac. I myself wouldn’t believe it if I hadn’t seen it in black ink. Just as one example, we represented the doctor who exposed the Vioxx debacle. The treatment he received at the hands of management and his peers at FDA can only be described as Stalinist in its malice and intensity. This goes on in the development of veterinary medicine, as well.

    I once read that organisms can differ to such an extent that the performance of a drug in men is not necessarily even a predictor of how it will perform in women. I’d like to know the extent to which that is true. And even if only slightly, it should be common sense that performance in, say, rats is irrelevant and immaterial.

    Kind of OT, but I discovered this yesterday:
    It’s a zine by a man who made a living hiring himself out to medical experimentation, and has just come out with a book-length collection of the articles. He’s also interviewed in the latest radio episode of This American Life, in which he, in a perfectly dead-pan tone, describes himself as more of a prostitute than an actual prostitute but less of one than a professional athlete. Interesting stuff,

  4. Pingback: Carnival Against Vivisection | SuperWeed

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