The Ethical Argument Against Vivisection
There exists a fundamental principle that the only limit to a person's rights should be the where the rights of another are infringed - most critically, when a person's life, health or freedom from captivity is at risk. From our own experiences, we know that these things are priceless to us; we are familiar with the fear that arises from any of them being threatened.
Slavery, murder, and rape are considered among the worst crimes imaginable; execution and life imprisonment are the two harshest sentences that U.S. courts have the power to hand down. We prohibit people from hurting, killing, or enslaving other humans because we recognize that the innate urge we have to retain our health and freedom exists not just in ourselves, but in all humans; when these urges are severely violated, we suffer. We strive to build a society in which individuals are not subjected to these crimes.
It is for this reason that it is generally agreed that humans should not force other innocent, non-consenting humans into research experiments which involve captivity, injury, or death. Only after human subjects are thoroughly informed of the risks of an experiment and have consented can they be research subjects. However, non-human animals do not receive this benefit. They are bred or captured, sold, forced to endure harmful procedures, and slaughtered.
The usual explanation for this disparity is that non-human animal life is considered less valuable than human life because other species lack certain traits that qualify humans for rights. Let's look at some of the traits non-human animals possess, though.
(1) Non-human animal species share our urge to survive and remain free from injury. The survival instinct is as much a core instinct to them as it is to us, and that is clear to anyone who observes the way in which various animals go about their lives.
(2) Non-human animal species share our urge to be free to move about. Like with humans, captivity is to them a dangerous situation in which they have zero control over whether they will be allowed to survive and reproduce, or whether they will be starved, tortured, and killed the next day. The drive to avoid capture and remain free is part of the survival instinct. Even "domesticated" cats and dogs are quite miserable when left in cages for any length of time. They have not lost the basic animal fear of confinement.
When these and other fundamental instincts and urges are severely frustrated, non-human animals experience the same painful or unpleasant sensations that we do; in suffering, they are our equals. When they are locked in cages and "used" in experiments, they necessarily suffer. Thus, the non-human animals used in experiments possess the same basic traits that require us to abstain from harming, imprisoning, and experimenting on unwilling humans.
So why is it that the criteria for subjecting a non-human animal to experimentation differs from the criteria for doing so to a human? The line of distinction has been drawn in many places, but none of them establishes a solid, definite barrier which positions all humans on one side and all non-humans on the other. There are actually two reasons for the differing criteria, and each has been a source of countless past atrocities against humans as well. The two often walk hand in hand.
(1) Non-human animal species have appearances that differ from those of ourselves and our families. For some people, the ability to relate to others is directly related to how similar the other's appearance is to their own. In fact, superficial differences have often been used by people as an excuse to treat others as having "less value." In the case of non-human animals, the physical differences are all the more obvious, and the resulting treatment all the more brutal. Communication between species does not naturally take place in the way in which it does between humans, which compounds the problem.
One may claim that a chimpanzee life is less valuable than a human life not because of appearance at all, but because of inferior intelligence, or any number of abilities. However, examine the case of a given adult chimpanzee that exceeds a given severelly mentally impaired human in intelligence. The latter is still granted rights while the former is not. Any other ability may be substituted for intelligence in this example and the result will be the same. If the chimpanzee could have his or her appearance transformed to that of a human, he or she would be allowed basic human rights regardless of his or her abilities because of the value we place on appearance.
(2) The subjects cannot resist successfully. Like oppressors of the past, vivisectors have noticed the unique position in which they have their victims:
(a) The situation is such that the victims cannot physically escape on their own.
(b) The vast majority of individuals who do have rights, and the ability to end the oppression do not acknowledge the rights of the oppressed individuals. The society is able to avoid the liberation of the oppressed by defining them as "undeserving of rights," though the characteristics that should qualify an individual for rights are present. Historically, the individuals possessing rights have resisted extending rights to others because they fear the diminishment of their own rights. Tradition is a powerful force as well, and often those with financial interests in the exploitation claim that enormous benefits are derived from their practices.
These two factors form a formidable enough wall on their own. In the case of non-human victims, there is a third:
(c) Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. once said, "Freedom is never voluntarily given by the oppressor; it must be demanded by the oppressed." Unfortunately, the case of non-human animals in laboratories is a case of victims without voices. They cannot gather petitions, testify in court, explain the cruelty they endure, participate in acts of civil disobedience, or otherwise campaign for their own rights. The entire effort must be carried out by humans.
Though the moral justification behind it is flawed, animal experimentation goes on. Tens of millions of animals are killed each year in experiments in the U.S. alone, and countless more are forced to continue to live as nothing more than objects of research in laboratory cages. We cannot allow vivisection to continue; we cannot deny animals the basic rights that any innocent, conscious being deserves: freedom from exploitation, purposefully inflicted suffering, and captivity.