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Scientific Sacrifices
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Scientific Sacrifices

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)

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  1. The Flaming Vegan Crew
    The Flaming Vegan Crew
    Emily-- this is a brave topic to handle. Interesting post. Thanks!
  2. Veganara
    Hi Emily. I have voted because this certainly is a brave blog to post here, and this is very well-expressed. But I can't say I agree at all with what you are doing, especially as you are a vegan. I know it is a big grey area - the justification is that it may benefit humans. But I can't believe there are no other methods these days by which you could come by the same results (rats are a different species to humans anyway! how conclusive are your findings going to be??) Please check out this link to the website for one of the leading humane research organisaitions:
    1. Mental4Lentilz
      Thanks for voting Veganara, I'm sure it wasn't easy!! The fact is, for this research, we need developing neurons, and the only way to obtain those is from a developing embryo. Until we are able to use discarded human embryos (really difficult to see that happening in the near future) this is actually the only way. Working for a research institution which finds new ways around animal research would pretty much be my dream job, and it's great that such places exist. There are lots of things that simply should not happen in research - chimp studies for example, and it's great that these are being phased out. I do think there is a lot of mis-information though, even from reputable organisations such as PETA, that there is "always an alternative" to using animals. Hopefully in the future!!
  3. Lila
    Thanks, Emily. I think you are one of few with a perspective from both sides, and an intimate knowledge of science, to write such an insightful piece. I hope this post brings awareness to the necessities of animal testing in (some) kinds of areas of breakthrough research. I dont condone the use of animals at all, but the concept that there is "always an alternative to animals" is misleading, thrown around too casually, and actually damaging to progress. Simply put, there isn't always an alternative - for some kinds of research. Until that time (and I hope it is soon, if, realistically, it ever can be?), science will keep on keeping on.
    1. Mental4Lentilz
      Thank you Lila! You've pretty much said everything I tried to say in my whole rambling post, but you did it in a few small sentences! Keep on keeping on.
  4. Doctor Mom
    Sometimes it is necessary to experiment this way.
  5. LibbyTreats
    While it saddens me to think of animal research, I know it must be done, for now. I only hope that the animals do not suffer. Research for cosmetics is what I find most appalling, especially in the name of vanity for what they do to animals for Botox. I had to clue in a clueless vegetarian friend about how much animal testing is done there when she said she was considering the procedure.
    1. Mental4Lentilz
      The guidelines for animal research are strict, and ethics committees (consisting of vets and members of the public as well as scientists) establish whether the use of animals is worth the potential outcome. It's definitely not ideal but at this stage, that's how it is. We also have regular inspections (often unannounced) to ensure that correct procedures are in place. I do not know anyone who objects to these measures. I completely agree about cosmetics appalling - the only justification for medical research in my mind is the potential benefit. I don't see any justification for cosmetics. At least people are becoming more aware of the issue. Thanks for your comment!
      1. Veganara
        I have to say, I am with Mark Twain on the subject of vivisection, even for medical purposes: "I am not interested to know whether vivisection produces results that are profitable to the human race or doesn't.... The pain which it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis of my enmity toward it, and it is to me sufficient justification of the enmity without looking further." Also, I am afraid that I have seen too much evidence to the contrary that lab animals used for these purposes are respectfully treated - usually they are treated as just pieces of lab equipment, just cheap disposable commodities, so it doesn't matter how many they kill, or how much they suffer. I am not suggesting this is your attitude Emily - I am sure it is not, or you would not have written this heartfelt blog about it. But sadly it is the attitude of too many scientists.
        1. SKimball
          Emily's blog is steeped in anthropocentricism. It's easy to see how wrong it all is when you take rats out of the scenario and insert any human being in their place. What she is doing to them would be considered criminal even with strict guidelines put in place and an ethics committee to rubber stamp the experiment. Here is a quote worth reciting in length that explains why someone would come to the defense of a mere rat when human beings could clearly benefit from the work Emily is doing: At its deepest level, human ethics is based on the independent value of the individual: The moral worth of any one human being is not to be measured by how useful that person is in advancing the interest of other human beings. To treat human beings in ways that do not honor their independent value is to violate that most basic of human rights: the right of each person to be treated with respect. The philosophy of animal rights demands only that logic be respected. For any argument that plausibly explains the independent value of human beings implies that other animals have this same value, and have it equally. And any argument that plausibly explains the right of humans to be treated with respect, also implies that these other animals have this same right, and have it equally, too. It is true, therefore, that women do not exist to serve men, blacks to serve whites, the poor to serve the rich, or the weak to serve the strong. The philosophy of animal rights not only accepts these truths, it insists upon and justifies them. But this philosophy goes further. By insisting upon and justifying the independent value and rights of other animals, it gives scientifically informed and morally impartial reasons for denying that these animals exist to serve us. Once this truth is acknowledged, it is easy to understand why the philosophy of animal rights is uncompromising in its response to each and every injustice other animals are made to suffer. It is not larger, cleaner cages that justice demands in the case of animals used in science, for example, but empty cages: not "traditional" animal agriculture, but a complete end to all commerce in the flesh of dead animals; not "more humane" hunting and trapping, but the total eradication of these barbarous practices. For when an injustice is absolute, one must oppose it absolutely. It was not "reformed" slavery that justice demanded, not "re- formed" child labor, not "reformed" subjugation of women. In each of these cases, abolition was the only moral answer. Merely to reform injustice is to prolong injustice. ---------The Philosophy of Animal Rights By Tom Regan Emily is the strong, the rats in her care are the weak. She casts morality aside when she sacrifices them on the altar of science. Afterall, we would get even better results to help people with if we sacrificed people instead but, we as a society already recognize that there should be some limits to medical progress. You would think that rats being sentient like us would be included but, deeply ingrained anthropocentricism will distort the views of even the most educated among us.
  6. niki johnson
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