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Using animals in medical research

Before a new medical product or technology gets to the patient, it undergoes a rigorous research and testing process, including testing on animals. The use of animals in such clinical research is legally permissible.1 But is it ethically appropriate? Further, in our time, the legality of an action speaks nothing of the existence (or non-existence) of a biblical or theological basis for the determination that the behavior is legal. While the Bible may have been the "law of the land" in ancient times, today"s courts rely on secular codes and statutes for their determination of what is "right" and "wrong."

Does human benefit justify animal use?

Medical literature contains numerous examples of the clinical benefit provided to humans by animal-derived products. Dysfunctional human heart valves can be replaced with porcine heart valves; incisions can be effectively closed with sutures made from bovine viscera; and porcine skin can be used to treat large burns. On a molecular scale, epinephrine (derived from bovine adrenal glands) can be used to stimulate the heart in crisis situations; bovine thrombin facilitates blood clotting; and bovine pancreas can be the source of insulin for diabetic patients. Daily, millions of patients worldwide benefit from animal-derived medical products. Millions more experience the benefits of medical products that were first tested on animals before being marketed. Further, physicians learn both basic science and surgical techniques through the use of animals in the course of their medical training. This professional training directly impacts their knowledge and skill, thus facilitating patient care and treatment.

Acknowledging the "good" that comes from safe and effective medical products, does this "good" justify the use of animals? Does this "good" demand a moral obligation to use animals for the development of such products? Could there be a theological basis for using animals in clinical research if the intent of the research is to improve human health? If there is theological support for such use of animals, do humans have moral obligations to the animals used?

The Bible was written at a time and setting lacking high-tech surgical and pharmaceutical technologies, and it contains no prescriptive commentaries with regard to the use of animals in the course of medical care (or research). Lacking such instructions, one can reflect on the Bible's general remarks regarding animal care. For example, Exodus 23:5 requires that animals in distress be aided; Deuteronomy 25:4 requires that oxen be allowed to eat while grinding grain; Deuteronomy 22:10 requires that animals that are incompatible not be forced to work together.  

These verses portray animals being used in the course of human goals and point out that humans have a duty to respect and care for them. Further, the fact that animals are not viewed in isolation, but in a setting of their relationship with humans could be seen as relevant to the discussion of medical experimentation.

Aristondo2 has argued that in all human-animal relationships, the welfare of both the human and the animal is relevant; however, animals can be sacrificed for important human needs, including the advancement of clinical medicine. This hierarchy of humans over animals is seen to be reflected in Genesis 1:26 and Genesis 9:2 that speak of human dominion over the animal kingdom. In this superior position, humans can be seen as managing the use of animals, with the responsibility to employ animals for goals that serve the best interests of humans, and at the same time, ensuring that the animals are cared for in all settings (e.g., home, farm, laboratory).

Contemporary Jewish teaching suggests that relief of human pain and suffering takes precedence over considerations of animal welfare; similarly, the benefits to the general public supersede the welfare of individual animals.3 Judaism also teaches that animals were created to serve humankind, thus their use as food, labor, and companions are permitted--the only caveat being that the animals be treated in a manner that takes into account the pain and suffering that the animals may be subjected to.4

If this position is accepted, the failure to conduct clinical research requiring the use of animals would be considered immoral because in "saving" these animals, the potentially substantial clinical benefit to humans is lost. No morality is seen in "saving" animals from being used in clinical research unless the research methods cannot minimize the animal's pain and discomfort, and potential benefits to the community at large are not foreseeable.5  

Not all medical research results in beneficial products or technologies. Some experimentation produces data that is inconclusive or products that are harmful to humans, animals, or the environment. Often, there is no accurate way to predict what the experimental outcome will be. Thus there is no way to guarantee the use of animals only in those experiments which will be successful in facilitating human benefit. Because of this uncertainty, and the real possibility that experiments may result in products that are harmful (e.g., toxic, injurious), the intent of the research project is relevant to decisions about animal experimentation. Mere curiosity is not enough to justify the use of animals in medical research; rather, the goal must be to gather data that is relevant to the relief of suffering, cure of disease, prevention of illness, or maintenance of function.

Duties amid dominion

While the Bible does not refer specifically to "animal experimentation" as a permissible (or impermissible) activity, in the experimentation setting, the biblical imperative of respect and care for animals should translate into research protocol measures that would prevent or minimize pain and suffering to animals. Such measures could include analgesia, environmental temperature control, secure shelter, nutrition, hydration, and veterinary care.6 Physical handling of animals should be done in a manner that minimizes unnecessary stress. The number of animals used should be no more than needed to provide statistically defensible data. Animals should only be used in experiments that require them. Alternate models such as tissue culture or computer simulations should be used in place of animals as scientifically appropriate. Research protocols should be analyzed by an institutional review committee to ensure that the methodology is scientifically sound, and that measures are included that ensure animal welfare. Lastly, all research personnel should be trained with regard to principles of research ethics and animal welfare.


While I have attempted to show biblical support for the use of animals in clinical research, others use the Bible to decry the use of animals in such research. The Canadian animal rights group, CARE (Christian Animal Rights Effort), interprets certain Bible texts to place animals and humans on equal moral ground, and argue that animals should not be used even for food or clothing.7 PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) also use such biblical interpretation in their arguments against the use of animals for food, clothing, and medical research.8 Just as there are multiple interpretations of biblical passages by various individuals and religious denominations in respect to theology and doctrine, there are multiple interpretations of the Scripture in matters such as animal experimentation. The "right" interpretation will always be a matter of argument among different groups of Christians.

Whatever those differences may be, I concur with philosopher David Smith9 that animals are also creatures of God, and they rely on humans and their Creator for some of their needs. While God may permit humans to use animals for human goals, this is not without the obligation to prevent or minimize animal pain and discomfort during this use. Accepting the hierarchical role of humans over animals also requires the acceptance of the obligations humans have to animals with regard to matters of safety and welfare. A hierarchical role means more than "being in charge"; such a role requires care and nurturing of one's charges, in this case, research animals. While improving the safety and efficacy of clinical medicine is a worthy goal, pursuing this goal without reflecting on the welfare of research animals is a dereliction of duty demanded by the Word of God.

Katrina A. Bramstedt (Ph.D., Monash University) is a bioethicist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio, and a former medical device engineer specializing in cardiac implants.

Notes and references

1.    United States Code, Title 7, Sections 2131-2156, Animal Welfare Act.

2.    J. Aristondo, "A Christian Perspective on the Use of Animals for Medical Research and Transplantation," Ethics & Medicine 11 "1995": 56-67.

3.    R. Y. Y. Weinberg, Sereidei Esh III, no. 7.

4.    See F. Rosner, "Animal Experimentation: The Jewish View," Archives of Internal Medicine 144 (1984): 927-928; M. J. Monea, "Animals-Biblical and Laboratory," Hospital Practice 23 (1988); 3: 23-24.

5.    J. D. Bleich, "Domination Over Animals: Balancing Moral Obligations," Investigative Ophthalmology & Visual Science 37 (1996): 689-692.

6.    See 1 above.

7.    Christian Animal Rights Effort. Available online Accessed September 3, 2002.

8.    K. Kozlowski, "Animal Rights Group Calls on Christians," The Detroit News (March 4, 2001). Available online Accessed September 3, 2002.

9.    D. H. Smith, "Religion and the Use of Animals in Research: Some First Thoughts," Ethics & Behavior 7 (1997): 137-147.