A veterinarian confronts the ethics of animal experimentation.

Until recently, animal experimentation in the United States stood virtually unchallenged. It was considered an essential tool in fighting disease. Few questioned its legitimacy; it sparked little controversy in the annals of medical ethics.

Today, however, the animal research laboratory is under increasing attack as a place of senseless cruelty, largely due to the efforts of the expanding animal rights movement. This movement, involving an estimated two million people worldwide, is gaining clout and credibility, with lobbies in Washington and support from some leading ethicists. And Christians—theologically liberal to conservative—are included among those who have taken up the animal rights banner.

As a Christian researcher, my training and experience has centered on the use of laboratory animals. When I was a young veterinary student, I was initiated into animal experimentation through practice surgery. My exposure later increased as I entered the military veterinary corps. There I experimented on animals—at times killing them—to better understand human and animal diseases. Since then I have earned a Ph.D. in microbiology and now teach in the veterinary school of a large midwestern university. My work focuses on the study of bacteria, but I still do some experiments using animals.

Watching the animal rights movement expand its impact and influence, I realized my lab was not safe from criticism. I felt a natural inclination to protect my territory. Yet, as a Christian, I knew I had to grapple with the ethical issues sparked by the movement. How should I, or any Christian, make sense out of this recent addition to the rights crusade?

A Potpourri Of Religious Views

To explore this question, and possibly to participate in some lively discussion, I attended a conference last summer titled “Religious Perspectives on the Use of Animals in Science.” At the conference, in London, I encountered a potpourri of religious views, including all the world’s major (and many not so major) religions. Each came quite ready to display its theological and philosophical wares on the topic of animal rights.

I hoped that the conference would offer a forum for discussion on the topic of science and religion, yet not a single scientist presented a defense of animal experimentation. In fact, to my knowledge, I was the only scientist in attendance who was actively engaged in animal research.

As the conference progressed, I realized that many of the speakers were skewing their arguments, selectively quoting Scripture, and generally mishandling the facts of animal experimentation. I was moved to speak out. Upon reaching a microphone set up for audience participation, I stated my credentials as a scientist and researcher.

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That’s all it took. Boos from a handful of extremists squelched any spirit of dialogue. I was the enemy—the animal killer.

If all fellow attendees had demonstrated such open bias against research, I could have returned to my teaching position unchallenged—and also assured that animal rights people were not living in the realm of reality. But most spoke reasonably, and some spoke Christianly. And those in leadership seemed especially concerned that open communication play an important part in conference sessions. After in-depth discussions with several conference participants, I left with some tough ethical questions digging into my Christian sensitivity.

Animal Rights Advocates: What Is The Light That Guides?

Anyone concerned with the animal rights movement must first understand that those involved range from militant to moderate. The groups receiving the most media attention are the animal liberationists. They came to the fore last winter, claiming to have injected poison into Mars candy bars throughout Britain. Their claim proved to be a hoax, but they got their point across: Stop the senseless killing of animals.

While the more militant of these activists are largely located in England, they pop up now and again in the United States, spray painting telltale logos on the homes of researchers and breaking into research facilities to free laboratory animals. They bear such expressive names as Animal Liberation Front and Guardian Apes.

Obviously, these people are in the minority. Most involved in the movement are—albeit zealous—more prone toward moderation. Tom Regan, who chaired the London conference, is one leader from this more respectable side. While radically opposed to all animal research, his standing as a philosopher and intellectual has given the rights movement a greater hearing. Then there is Tufts University’s Andrew Rowan. His willingness to concede the need for some experimentation is gaining the ear of a growing number of otherwise skeptical scientists.

With most gains, however, there are subsequent losses. As the animal rights movement increases its “educational” campaign, the laboratory faces growing public scrutiny and skepticism. And it is the tactics of this campaign that I have found highly suspect.

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Films—often used out of context by animal rights people—show horror stories, depicting the researcher as villain and sadist. The well-meaning scientist comes across as mad, taking part in the world’s most hideous torture of animals.

Rights activists also readily exploit human sentiment and emotion. To the person with a weak stomach or a love for pets, even normal laboratory situations can appear cruel. What average human being would not be moved by a picture of a dog with a tumor bulging from its side? The activist uses such scenes to tug at the heartstrings. “Oh, how pathetic!” the unsuspecting layman cries. No one explains that this animal may just be the link to finding a new treatment for cancer or another as yet incurable disease.

These are the methods of some animal rights activists. But as a Christian, I have been especially concerned about the theological and philosophical premises inherent in the movement. What is the light that guides?

The rights movement encompasses nearly every religious and nonreligious viewpoint known. Many adherents are simply compassionate people who love their pets and hate to think of any dog or cat being abused. Their thoughts are molded by sentiment, without much time spent on ethical and philosophical debate.

The leadership of the movement obviously does approach the subject with quite impressive philosophical paradigms. Yet at the core of their various perspectives is the assumption that animals have rights in much the same way humans have rights. Such a concept should immediately cause some uneasy feelings.

They would hold, for instance, that a researcher seeking to cure a human disease should be experimenting on humans, not animals. “Certainly,” says the animal rights person, “you can’t infringe on the rights of animals to deal with problems exclusive to the human species.”

From this standpoint, humans are no more important than animals. The Christian idea of human uniqueness is lost.

“It can no longer be maintained by anyone but a religious fanatic that man is the special darling of the whole universe,” argues ethics professor Peter Singer in Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals, “or that other animals were created to provide us with food, or that we have divine authority over them, and divine permission to kill them.”

From here it is easy to move a step further away from the Christian religion and closer to Eastern pantheism. And that is exactly what some do. Veterinarian and philosopher Michael Fox favors an abandoning of a biblical concept of God in favor of religious ideas best mirrored in Taoism and Zen Buddhism.

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Others are adamant that religion stay out of the discussion altogether. In The Case for Animal Rights, Tom Regan dismisses the “appeal to a moral authority” as a valid method of answering moral questions. He states: “Whether there is a god (or gods) is a very controversial question, and to rest questions of right or wrong on what an alleged god says (or the gods say) is already to base morality on an intellectually unsettled foundation.” Beginning with this assumption, Regan concludes that harmful animal experimentation is never justified.

As the Christian faith is abandoned, humans and animals are brought closer together in worth. But a strange thing happens. Animals, at least certain animals, actually pass humans in value. Listen to Singer in his Practical Ethics: “Hence we should reject the doctrine that places the lives of members of our species above the lives of members of other species. Some members of other species are persons; some members of our own species are not.… So it seems that killing, say, a chimpanzee is worse than the killing of a gravely defective human, who is not a person.”

A Christian View Of The Animals

Such underlying philosophical themes are certainly repugnant to the Christian conscience. Yet, I as a Christian researcher—or any other Christian—should not walk away with nothing to offer but our rejection. The Christian faith provides an important perspective into the animal rights movement. It is a perspective that is rooted deeply in the creation account, in which all creatures have worth, but where humanity is a special, “crowning” creation.

Writing in the late forties after he had witnessed the near genocide of the Jews, C. S. Lewis expressed serious doubt about animal experimentation when it is not guided by Christian principles. “Once the old Christian idea of a total difference in kind between man and beast has been abandoned,” says Lewis in a small pamphlet titled Vivisection, “then no argument for experiments on animals can be found which is not also an argument for experiments on inferior men.”

Christians must draw their perspectives, their light, from the Scriptures. Specifics here, however, are not easily found. Few theologians have commented on the manner of humanity’s relationship to animals. (An intriguing exception is John Wesley’s sermon “The General Deliverance,” in which he argues that God “directs us to be tender to even the meaner creatures; to show mercy to these also.”)

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But while the Scriptures may be void of specifics, they do offer some instructive insights. Consider the Gospel accounts. Jesus was far afield from the Eastern pantheism of many animal rights advocates. The Lord, for instance, did not espouse vegetarianism. As a matter of fact, he was known to cook a meal of fish for his disciples, and he readily turned a few fish into dinner for thousands. And, of course, Jesus and his chosen few followed the Passover tradition of eating lamb. Clearly nothing in the gospel record encourages a vegetarian diet. Killing for food cannot be seen as wrong in the Christian context.

On several occasions, Jesus compared and contrasted animal and human life—and in all cases human life was more highly valued. “Look at the birds of the air …” Jesus teaches in Matthew 6:26. “Are you not much more valuable than they?”

In other instances, he chides the Pharisees for placing animal welfare above human welfare. “You hypocrites!” he responds to those who criticized him for healing on the Sabbath. “Doesn’t each of you on the Sabbath untie his ox or donkey from the stall and lead it out to give it water? Then should not this woman, a daughter of Abraham, … be set free on the Sabbath day from what bound her?” (Luke 13:15–16, NIV).

Obviously, it cannot be inferred from all this that Jesus and his followers lacked compassion and concern for animals. To do so would be contrary to the spirit of not only the Christian faith, but of the Jewish faith and tradition as well.

“A righteous man cares for the needs of his animals,” writes the wise man in Proverbs (12:10). “Six days do your work, but on the seventh day do not work, so that your ox and your donkey may rest,” Moses tells the Israelites (Exod. 23:12).

The issues of animal research must come in line with a caring view toward all of creation. While God has given man dominion over animals, there is no carte blanche to open slaughter and abuse.

“Carefully designed experiments, where the justification is for human benefit, could be justified by the creation account,” says Robert Nelson of the ethics commission of the Christian Medical Society. “But when you say we have dominion to use animals in research—to use to what end? We need to look at the ends to which we’re using anything. Stewardship is an eyes-open recognition of what really needs to be done.”

Anglican theologian Andrew Linzey, who offered valuable Christian perspectives to the London conference, attacks any exploitation of animals. Scriptural dominion, he argues, does not mean man can simply look at animals as a utility with no regard for them as a creation of God.

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Instead, Scriptural dominion implies responsible stewardship toward all the created order. After all, human beings are only temporary caretakers. God is the owner. Such a profound truth makes it imperative that a Christian’s actions are governed by God and his command to “not muzzle an ox while it is treading out the grain” (Deut. 25:4). In this light, some Christians of the seventeenth century (like Descartes) were grossly insensitive simply to state that animals were machines with no souls, condoning the dissection of live, unanesthetized animals for the study of anatomy. Dealing justly with animals is not an option to be casually dismissed: it is imperative.

From there it only follows that animal experimentation that is intentionally cruel is never justified. Further, experimentation that has a poor regard for proper stewardship must be carefully critiqued. Consider some cases in point.

One questionable situation is the heart transplant involving “Baby Fae.” Last fall this week-and-a-half-old girl suffered from a congenital heart condition. The doctors decided to transplant a baboon heart into the infant. After several days of struggling for life, she died. From the beginning, animal rights activists had dubbed the killing of the baboon a senseless act of murder. As ludicrous as that may sound, the situation is clouded by controversy. There is growing debate over whether the baboon had to be killed or if a donor human heart could not have, in fact, been found. Some scientists have suggested the baboon transplant was “unwise and injudicious.”

As for causing unneeded pain, certain practices within the cosmetic industry raise serious questions. In order to test whether a given cosmetic is safe, laboratories often place a product into an animal’s eye, sometimes injuring it. Consumer safety is important, but Christians may honestly wonder if the world really needs another mascara or eye shadow. Certainly the testing of unnecessary drugs and products at the expense of animals could be challenged from the Christian context.

Other areas of questionable research include using animals to test offensive military weapons and subjecting them to experiments where goals are not clearly defined. There is also misuse in many teaching situations. Often instructors use live animals when films and other teaching aids would suffice. Scientists also need not repeat experiments on animals, but they can use fast and efficient computer banks to learn and build from prior research.

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A word of caution here. It is very easy to criticize work that is outside one’s own experience and expertise. I, for instance, tend to be very skeptical toward psychological experimentation on animals. To me, such research seems to be of questionable value in addressing human needs, and it is often cruel to the experimental animals. Yet I must tread softly. The rationale behind such experimentation is outside my own narrow field of veterinary medicine. I do not have the background to judge properly. So, too, the average Christian must respond prudently to any alleged abuse in animal research.


Human sickness is a consequence of a fallen world. In order to combat substantially the results of this sickness, modern medicine must use every justifiable means at its disposal. Without animal experimentation, medical knowledge of the causes and treatments of both animal and human diseases would still be in infant stages.

Further, to say that it is better to live with human suffering than to do experimentation is a serious misplacement of priorities. Some animal rights advocates have become callous to real human suffering, suggesting that diseases are only the result of foolish lifestyle choices. But that, of course, is not the case in many situations—such as that of a child with cystic fibrosis, bacterial meningitis, or leukemia.

While alternatives such as computer simulations and cell cultures should be used whenever possible, animals simply must be used in many cases so that cures may be found. It is essential, then, that Christians not fall into the “all or none” trap.

There is a middle ground. It is a perspective that stresses animal welfare instead of animal rights, and human compassion instead of animal liberation. This approach stands opposed to all misuse of animals in research. It also affirms that some sacrifice must be made to treat human suffering and need—the Christian’s chief concern.

As a researcher, then, I have a duty. Because of the Fall, all of “creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.” I long for the time when the groaning—all suffering of every creature—will cease. Until that time, I must seek to deal with human disease in the best way I know how.

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