Vivisection and Preventable Disease: Who is to blame?

In the animal ethics literature, there is a common criticism of vivisection that often presents itself (which I will argue is misdirected): “nonhuman animal research is not necessary because so many human illnesses (type 2 diabetes, cancer, cardiovascular disease, neurodegenerative diseases, etc.) could have been prevented if humans had just been a little bit smarter, less gluttonous, less lazy, and less selfish.” The claim then, is that if we have an alternative to preventing disease X (such as preventing ourselves from getting disease X in the first place), using animals as models for researching disease X is not *necessary*. An example of this criticism comes from Marc Bekoff’s blog where he criticizes the obesity studies performed at the Oregon Primate National Research Center: although 1/3 of Americans are obese, “many cases of obesity can easily be avoided by not eating all the horrible unhealthy foods that are advertised widely in mass media and by getting off the couch and taking some exercise.” Why then, should nonhuman animals be punished for, as Bekoff puts it, “our indiscretions and poor choices?” Why should a nonhuman animal be subjected to an incredible amount of pain and suffering in order to serve as a means for finding a cure to our self-induced diseases?

animal research

So, not only is research on animals reprehensible because it treats a conscious, sentient being as a mere instrument or tool for research, it is said to be especially problematic and sickening when we consider the supposed fact that the majority of the diseases scientists research could have easily been prevented to begin with.

It seems, then, that certain animal ethicists see a distinction between using an animal in research when the attempt is to find a cure to an unpreventable illness and using an animal in research for preventable diseases and sicknesses (although it might be the case that neither are justified, one type of research might be even more problematic than the other in that one is not even *necessary*). This idea is echoed by Francione in his essay, “The Use of Animals in Biomedical Research: Necessity and Justification,” where he argues that it is not an empirical necessity to use animals for research when the research concerns illnesses which are caused by “wholly unnecessary and often very destructive human behavior” (176).

The arguments presented by Bekoff and Francione seem to suggest the following ideas: if someone is going to smoke his lungs out, he should be prepared to deal with the consequences of lung cancer. If someone is going to shove animal flesh down his throat throughout his life, he should be prepared to deal with the consequences of cancer, heart problems, diabetes, obesity, and so forth. We should NOT make animals suffer and die just to “quickly fix” human induced problems.

While I agree that there is something especially peculiar about causing nonhuman animals to suffer and die in order to research preventable diseases and illnesses (especially diseases that are caused by exploiting animals in the first place), the more I consider the issue, the more I have come to the conclusion that the criticisms presented by Francione and Bekoff are a bit short-sighted and misdirected.

Sure, it’s easy for some of us (who have a considerable amount of education) to point a finger at obese patients and say “you’re responsible for your own problem. You should have eaten better and worked out!” It’s easy to point a finger at someone with diabetes and say, “you shouldn’t have eaten animal flesh!” It’s easy to point a finger at someone with lung cancer and say, “you shouldn’t have smoked! Now deal with the consequences.” Yet this method of blaming the individual is problematic because it distracts us from what should be the focus of our attack: capitalist ideologies. The focus of our attack should not necessarily be limited to the individual (although I would agree that there are plenty of instances where some individuals are more culpable than others and it might be perhaps ONE step in responding to the issue at hand); the focus should be on the fundamental causes that drive, encourage, and make it easy or desirable for individuals to make the harmful choices that they do.

Rather than characterizing individuals as lazy, gluttonous, and so forth, we might stop to consider the following systemic issues:

1.The cost of food and the government’s interest in agribusiness: since the government subsidizes animal agriculture (the largest amount of subsidies goes to animal feed), animal flesh and product is almost too affordable. It is noted that the meat and dairy production receive 63% of the $20 billion subsidies in the United States, as well as sugar subsidies for unhealthy foods, which contribute to heart disease, obesity and diabetes, with enormous costs for the health sector. Furthermore, the government has been known to bail out animal agriculture industries, ensuring they prosper and provide cheap food to consumers. As my friend and colleague Corey Wrenn has written, veganism is a diet that is not so affordable as we often presume it to be: “Veganism will continue to be a rich white thing that benefits rich white people. Vulnerable populations who are suffering from malnutrition and diet-related diseases will continue to be overlooked and blamed for their misfortune. Instead of recognizing structural inequalities and systematic racism and classism, we blame the individual for being lazy, callous, or “stupid.”

agriculture subsidies
2. The lack of education: if we were to enter lower-income communities, we might be surprised to find that many individuals might not even know what veganism is and even if they do, they might not know that it is a healthy option or how it can be practiced on a tight budget.

An example of how a lack of education is often responsible for human sickness comes from an essay by a physcian, Dr. Jerry Vlasak, who writes: I told her [the mother of a obese child] that a low fat vegetarian diet is proven to prevent the most common diseases that millions of people die from every single year; diseases such as heart disease, stroke, cancer, diabetes and hardening of the arteries. The mother began to cry and said that her little girl was teased by the other kids and couldn’t even play like a normal child because of her weight; that she was always coming down with ailments and that she was lethargic and fell asleep in school. Then the mother looked at me with tears in her eyes and asked ‘Why hasn’t any other doctor given us this information?’ This scenario is common in my practice, and is the direct result of the absolute power, greed and corruption of the meat and dairy industries.
3. The misdirected efforts and wasted money spent by our government: our government spends over 12 billion dollars a year on extremely wasteful biomedical research that, time and time again, proves to be unhelpful for humans. Not only is animal research extremely unproductive (and downright dangerous), it also sends the wrong message: “don’t worry about being lazy and getting sick. If you do, we have science and technology to save you!”

If the government were to invest the billions of dollars currently used for research on education (for instance, education about proper/healthy eating, education about exercise, education about safe sex, etc.) or after school activities/resources that offer our youth a safe environment and opportunities for entertainment that does not involve drinking or smoking themselves into a cancer coma, we might see a drastic decline in preventable illnesses. 

Dr. Bernard-Pellet (M.D.) also recommends that we make financial investments in primary prevention, which stands opposed to “western orthodox medicine.” As he points out, directing our efforts and resources to preventing people from getting sick will have much more favorable results than treating someone after they have become sick.

4. The government funding of other unproductive activities: the government funds sports arenas, like football stadiums, baseball stadiums, etc. that promote unhealthy lifestyles such as drinking beer, eating hot dogs, etc. If the government wants to aid in providing an avenue of entertainment for citizens, why not fund activities that contribute to human well-being, such as buildings used to offer healthy cooking/education classes, fitness centers, etc?

……the list goes on.

While Francione and Bekoff are absolutely right to point out how peculiar and problematic it is to continually use animals as tools for research concerned with preventable diseases, the focus of their critcism is misdirected; it is not individuals who we should focus all of our energy criticizing: it is the power structures that make being unhealthy,sick, and overweight so easy and seemingly unavoidable. There is a systemic problem that is larger than the individual that needs to be the focus of our criticism.

The power structures (capitalists, corporate farming, the government, etc.) which are ultimately responsible for human disease and sickness want us to leverage attacks against and focus on criticizing ourselves and individuals: they want us to think it is our fault that we are sick and diseased. By focusing our energy only on ourselves and other individuals, we will remain distracted, thereby failing to criticize the economic system that is responsible for so much human sickness and disease. Yet, in exploring this issue honestly, we will find that the best way to eradicate  “preventable” human illnesses and sicknesses is by holding the government responsible and demanding that it spend time, money, energy, and resources promoting education and virtuous character in our youth rather than promoting the capitalist agenda.