When I told my parents about the experiments involved in my neuroscience research, their utter bemusement was precisely what I expected. Their daughter, happily a vegan for four years, would be euthanizing pregnant rats, dissecting out their embryos and culturing sensory neurons. This was the same daughter who refused to touch meat when unpacking groceries, wouldn't open the fridge if there was a roast chicken lurking inside, stood upwind if someone was barbecuing and consistently started long and exasperating debates. Hence, they required some justification from me.
The truth was, at this early stage I hadn't justified what I would be doing even to myself. I deflected tricky questions by joking that there was no problem as I didn’t have to eat the rats. Inside though, I was finding it difficult to rationalise my research. I don't believe anybody who is starting their scientific career believes that their work will be groundbreaking. Was my use of rats for basic scientific purposes really necessary? I was not directly curing a disease or testing a new treatment. For anybody new to scientific practices, animal experimentation can be daunting, but as someone who had shunned all animal products for most of their adult life it raised deeper ethical issues.
The more I thought about it (alone in the lab, late into the night), the more I realised that, although it was against everything I stood for, nothing is ever perfect. I am completely opposed to animal testing for cosmetics, as I believe it is entirely unnecessary. For research however, well, is it ethical to provide humans with cancer treatments that may or may not work? My research could eventually lead to a greater understanding of nerve regeneration after, for example, a spinal cord injury. Which life is worth more, the embryonic rat or the injured human? The way I now see it, my scientific findings are unique, and I am making a relatively minor yet novel contribution to the overall scientific body of knowledge. As a result, I have become convinced that I am doing the right thing. I know that sacrificing animals for research is not ideal (and I don’t believe other scientists think it is either), but it is regulated through ethics committees and, at least in the research I’ve been exposed to, animal sacrifices are kept to a minimum and performed as respectfully as possible. In my opinion, the treatment of animals used in scientific experiments is far better than those slaughtered in the thousands every day for the meat industry.
Recently, I attended a lecture about the costs and benefits of using animals in research, in the hope that it may help to strengthen my conviction. Disappointingly, however, only the costs were discussed. When probed for alternatives, the speaker suggested the use of human stem cells, which brings to the surface even more ethical issues. Although the speaker was clearly against the use of animals in research, his presentation only strengthened my current convictions by not providing a viable alternative. Until there is another way to obtain my data, I will continue dissecting the embryonic rats. Remaining convinced that my work is worth the sacrifice will enable me to do so without having to give each one a private funeral service.
Image credit: Tobias Akerboom (at hutmeelz)