The debate about the use of animals in research seems to have grown with time. Advocates tell stories of leukemia stricken children whose lives were saved by animal-tested drugs, while opponents conjure images of vivisected or horribly disfigured test subjects. For good or for bad, the fact remains that approximately 1 million animals are used in research in the U.S each year. A clear-headed comparison of the claims, evidence and prominent voices on both sides is necessary to sort through the ad hominem attacks, misinformation and other rhetorical noise to truly understand the issue.


It is probably safe to assume that people have been experimenting on animals for about as long as they've been experimenting period. Humans are, at their core, a curious species. However, while many people might see the current animal rights movement as a relatively recent development -- a product, perhaps of 1960s and 70s-era progressivism -- it is, in fact, hundreds of years old. Edmund O'Meara spoke out in the mid 17th century against vivisection. 130 years later, Jeremy Bentham equated animal with human suffering in his treatise, An Introduction to the Principles of Morals and Legislation.

Those In Favor

Almost all of the arguments in support of animal testing come back to one very powerful point: the use of animals in medical research saves human lives. The Foundation for Biomedical Research and Americans for Medical Progress both make this claim. They point to numerous examples as diverse as cancer treatment, organ transplant and bioterrorism countermeasures. Such advances would be impossible, they claim, without research conducted on animals, as would be similar advances in the future. They also maintain that alternative models can be useful supplements to animal testing but cannot replace it entirely.

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Those Opposed

Organizations such as the American Humane Society and Johns Hopkins University contend that the data produced by animal research is unreliable, at best, owing to fundamental physiological differences between humans and other animals. While they may have once been the best models available, that is no longer the case as advances in such technologies as computer modeling, tissue donation and synthetic tissue have made them far superior.

Moving Forward

Currently, the FDA requires animal testing data on all new pharmaceuticals before approving them for testing in humans. Given the sometimes intransigent nature of federal policy and the depth to which the practice is entrenched in medical tradition, animal testing -- and the debate surrounding it -- will likely be here for some time. Even so, researchers at Johns Hopkins and others around the world continue to search for and develop new and better alternatives.

About the Author

Aaron Thorpe has been writing on social and cultural issues for more than 20 years. He studied history and English at Portland State University. In addition to his work here, Thorpe also writes short fiction and essays which he publishes on his own blog, The Bitter Optimist.