In the EU member states, some 11 million animals are used each year in scientific experimentation. For example, fruit flies are used to advance basic biological research, rats and guinea pigs are used to determine the quality of medicinal products, and horses, pigs or monkeys are used during research and development of products and equipment for human and veterinarian medicine and dentistry.
On the one hand, this brings great benefit to science and medicine – it advances medical progress. Many scientists feel that killing animals for scientific research is ethically justified, regarding the knowledge gained as imperative for understanding causes of illness and the development of new cures.
On the other hand, worldwide more than 200 million animals per year either die during animal experiments or are being killed afterwards. Even though strict guidelines are in place for animal testing – for example, all experiments on vertebrates are notifiable and require a permit; strict legal rules apply for animal husbandry as well as the professional qualification and competence of staff – those who are opposed to animal experiments time and again expose reprehensible testing methods and cases of animal cruelty. Therefore, the ethical justification of animal experiments is definitely questionable.
Another criticism of animal experiments is the ongoing debate on the validity for humans of findings gained by testing on animals. The past holds examples for both sides: results based on animal experiments have lead scientists to incorrect research hypotheses (e.g. during polio research) or lulled them into a false sense of security with regard to product safety (as with thalidomide). In other cases, effects observed during animal experiments turned out to be applicable to humans.
Increasingly, alternatives to animal experiments are being utilised in research. For example, experiments are being conducted on cell cultures, with tests taking place ‘in vitro’. Another substitute for animal experimentation is computer simulation, which helps to predict the way in which substances act in the body. However, neither method has been researched sufficiently and so cannot (yet) replace animal experiments.
In the end, the ethical conflict still remains: are we able to find ways to cope with illnesses and so ease human suffering while upholding the dignity and right to life of animals?