Monday, April 10, 2006

Embryonic Stem Cell Research Protects Animals’ Rights

I read recently that they’re now using lawyers instead of rats for scientific experiments. They do this for two reasons: one, the scientists become less attached to the lawyers, and two, there’s certain things that even rats won’t do.
-Jim V. Hart

Unintentionally, he has a point. Through the cocktail party humor there is a current of ethical seriousness: why the severe moral dilemma at the thought of subjecting humans to the same traumatic, sometimes brutal, existence of lab rats? The idea is so preposterous it therein provides opportunity for Hart’s humor—no one would seriously allow such treatment to a human. Imagine that instead of infant rhesus monkeys that human infants were the subject of Margaret and Harry Harlow’s renowned research; or more maliciously, the infamous cat sex experiments at the Museum of Natural History in New York. The sad fact is, since the discovery that stolen pets were being sold to research laboratories in the 1960’s, little progress has been made for animal liberation. Although humanity advocates appreciation for the little knowledge actually gained from such atrocities, the human species is in great debt to the animal kingdom and our collective deficit will unlikely be paid in full: no human will suffer as have animals suffered in the name of progress. This underscores the main question, how much animal (including human) suffering is justifiable for net scientific gain?

Despite public awareness of the aforementioned facts, and countless others, which exploded in the media after animal activism became mainstream, lawmakers put to work like Kasimir Malevich’s white on whites but with all the appeal of his Black Quadrilateral. To say that the establishment of the Animal Welfare Act is minimalist lawmaking is to understate present conditions, considering that tens of millions of animals a year are used in federally and privately funded experiments and many of these animals, bred for use in research, are not protected under the Act. Meanwhile, as research animals are used and abused for sometimes-shady purposes, the conservative governments of the world, ascribing to circular pro-life reasoning, denounce the cloning of human embryos for medical research where medical and scientific communities potentially stand to make enormous gains and advances. Whether the governments hold out or not, the argument remains: animals are separated from humans by a supposed intrinsic value—a lesser value, imposing human superiority. Nevertheless, substituting animal research for cloning technologies and allowing the natural course of scientific progression would help ease animal suffering significantly.

The human hierarchal structure of intrinsic value is undoubtedly going to value human life above all others. Thus, as long as humans suffer, they will act in their own self-interest to alleviate suffering, even at the cost of the so-called ‘sub-human’ species. However, if it were an accepted fact that all animals have equal intrinsic value, no animal would be sub-human and exploitation of any non-human animal would be as much a crime as the abuse of a human. Because of human nature, if a cure is found or a drug developed from an animal that animal will be exploited. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that finding alternate means of researching and developing techniques is one way of limiting the suffering and repression of animals, for example, legalization of cloning procedures. This important and controversial research holds the keys unlocking a cure for a number of diseases being treated with medications made from animals.

Although it is beyond the scope of this article to enumerate all the advances potentially unleashed by embryonic stem cell research, it is necessary to provide some short examples to support the premise before furthering the argument that the research would be an acceptable substitute for animals. So consider the case of two immunity-type diseases, MS and AIDS. Because stem cells are cells that are capable of dividing indefinitely in culture, and give rise to specialized cells, they can potentially be used to create any type of cell in the body. In MS, stem cell research could be used not only to build a new immune system and cure the disease but also, more dramatically, repair the damage done to the nervous system (scarring in the brain and spinal cord: sclerosis) by the afflicted immune system. Replacing neurons and other vital nervous system cells would restore mobility and function to permanently disabled MS patients. Currently, this technology is on the shelf and the state-of-the-art treatment used to control MS is an interferon protein made from the ovary cells of Chinese hamsters (CHO cells). Interferon drugs are sometimes hard on the body and are not a cure and it cost about twenty thousand dollars to supply an MS patient for a year as well as the life of the hamsters that were used to proliferate the cells. Stem cell research being conducted in Australia hopes to provide a treatment for AIDS, another disease that uses drugs developed from animals. Some of the more questionable AIDS drugs are constructed from animals with higher intellect than hamsters: i.e. sharks, to treat AIDS related cancers. With the advent of stem cell research, AIDS related cancers could be treated without the use of alternative therapies that utilize shark cartilage which, despite its unproven track record, is still being widely used as several shark species are being hunted to extinction.

With the benefits of stem cell research outlined, the moral implications of animal research become a powerful factor for motivating stem cell technology. Yet some critics believe exceptions are required in relation to the provision of principals provided in the Animal Welfare Act which state no limits on permissible exceptions. As mentioned above, it is a common belief in western culture that the value of animal life is much lower than that of persons, which means that to kill an animal much less reason is required than is necessary to justify the killing of a person. Basically, there is no predetermined scale for measuring the value of a life, animal or human and philosophy is the only recourse.

From the utilitarian moral philosophy employed by many animal rights activists comes the belief that the interests of every being affected by an action are to be taken into account and given the same weight as the like interests of any other being. Through this philosophy it is understood that all animals are, in fact, equal. So like the suffering of humans, if a non-human being suffers, there can be no moral justification for refusing to take that suffering into consideration, including medical research that benefits humans and harms or kills animals. Therefore, even a favorable benefit-cost ratio of animal research where the benefits are otherwise unattainable does not justify the use of animals in medical research. This line of reasoning makes viable alternatives that would eliminate or reduce the harms associated with research on animals an avenue that ought to be pursued very vigorously, alternatives such as embryonic stem cell research.

To simplify, an analogous situation is the clichéd example of an alien species coming to earth and using humans to extract a type of human cell to treat an alien disease. It is assumed that said ‘aliens’ are as much above us on the evolutionary scale as humans are above a hamster. But differing modes of cognition complicate this issue. If animals do not experience a reality on the same cognitive level as a human then that could be a factor that distinguishes between a higher and lower life form. The problem is, again, that no measurement system of such qualities or abilities currently exists and a lot of criticism against the utilitarian/sliding-scale argument—rational agents are more valuable than other animals—rests on this premise.

To expound this problem, how is a rational being defined? Rats, commonly acknowledged as a lower form of life, have been observed as lively, intelligent and sociable creatures, an opportunist species that naturally explores its environment, and is therefore capable of being bored when that exploration is frustrated. Hitherto, even the ‘higher’ intellectual forms of life, such as dolphins or great apes, which still do not have equal rights under the law with humans, are incapable of communicating to a point that humans would consider species equilibrium. Therefore, humans cannot act in order to bring about the optimum aggregate balance of good over bad consequences for all those affected by what we do because humans would have to assume practical autonomy where it cannot be proven beyond a doubt. But surely it is logical to assume that animals are just as self-interested as humans by merely observing self-preservation tactics in action. So now the issue turns back to using cloning technology to replace animals.

However, cloning presents its own set of moral problems, based on the idea that science moves faster than moral understanding and that the knowledge gained from such procedures will be used towards unnatural ends. A well-founded concern considering the self-interested nature of humans and examining this moral vertigo is a weighty conundrum. There are also those who turn the utilitarian perspective on itself, conceding that yes, all animals are equal, but killing a human embryo is killing a human, therefore cloning for medical research should not be a consideration. Yet, the purposed uses for this technology concerning stem cells does not require the death of an infant or the cloning of an entire human being. Moreover, all animals being equal, we have already cloned many species of animals and conducted chimera experiments—mixing together of species—the proverbial genie is well out of the bottle.

Another complicating factor in this debate is the proliferation of cell cultures. Cell cultures today replace the use of living animals. The idea is that a few die for the extraction process and the needed cells are cloned or grown in the lab. This is the process currently in use to make the MS interferon drugs Rebif, Avonex, and Betaseron. The value of cell cultures to replace extraction from living animals is enormous. It reduces the amount of unnecessary death to the absolute minimum needed for successful cultures; one animal is a sacrifice for the rest of its species. The questions is this: would we sacrifice a human life the same way and dismiss that life as easily? Sanctity of life, all life, would prohibit the killing of any animal, including humans, for research but it is the value of human life above animals that muddies the water. The same moral standards by which humans hold themselves are not applied to other animals.

Today, the laws and regulations in place that effect using animals in painful procedures and experiments are not enough to keep most research in western society in check. Despite the advances being made in genetic manipulation of human stem cell research, little has been done to make substitutions in technologies that could allay the suffering of research animals. Most rational people seem to agree that the widespread use of animal cells and animal parts notwithstanding, it would be preferable to not use animals for these medical reasons. Whether or not it is appropriate to assume that humans are a superior life form with rights over ‘sub-human’ species, it has not stopped humans from acting under that assumption. One can only hope people will take notice and this attitude towards the objectification of animals will be rectified. After all, vivisection in the name of science is akin to burning at the stake in the name of religion.


At 7:36 AM, Blogger Starving for Wisdom said...

Interesting article Doug.

The unfortunate problem is that lawmakers appear to lack the basic scientific literacy required to enter into intelligent debate on the issue. From what I have seen there has been condemnation that is completely lacking in its ability to display a grasp of relevant details.

Thanks for sharing.

At 10:17 AM, Blogger Iain Dughlais said...

For that matter, shared information these days is at best unreliable. How well informed is the common voter for example before he/she casts a ballot?

Looks like we're going to have to force feed people information.

At 12:17 AM, Blogger Jaime said...

Interesting! It is a complex topic, one which unfortunately many people do not fully grasp. I hope you are well.

At 1:34 PM, Blogger Ankhanu said...

This was a fairly active topic in my Phil222 class... most of it involved medical ethics.

the value of stem cell research is enormous; I also don't see much difference between concieving a fetus for use as, essentially, a cell farm is any different than current use of animals for research or farming them for food. To be fair, that opinion extends to the other living Kingdoms as well, not just Animalia.

But, again, like Sheena said, the proportion of people who have any real grasp on the details of the subject is minute.


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