The ethics of using animals in research

PhDr. Tereza Vandrovcová teaches Social Psychology (UNYP) and Animal Studies (UNYP, Charles University in Prague, MU in Brno). Her book The Animal as an Experimental Object: a Sociological Reflection (in Czech) was published in 2011. Her research interests include critical animal studies, bioethics, social psychology and sociology of science. The following article is derived from Dr. Vandrovcová’s unpublished doctoral dissertation.

1. Introduction

For more than one hundred years, animal advocates and many respected scientists have opposed the use of animals in experiments. “Since passage of the Cruelty to Animals Act 1876 in the UK, there has been a long, and frequently acrimonious, debate between supporters and opponents of the practice.”1 These critical voices have spoken about ethical dilemmas such as whether we have the right to use nonhuman animals for our purposes2 and whether there is a balance between upholding the interests of people and those of laboratory animals.3 Some of the critical voices also have demonstrated the uselessness of animal experimentation as a means of achieving medical knowledge, and drawn attention to the danger of misconception.  Based upon his own research, Knight notes, “most systematic reviews published in peer-reviewed scientific journals have demonstrated that animals are insufficiently predictive of human outcomes to provide substantial benefits during the development of human clinical interventions or the assessment of human toxicity.”4 He believes that their use persists for historical and cultural reasons. The association Doctors Against Animal Experiments Germany even declares that in some areas, tossing a coin delivers better results.5 Primary scientific critiques focus on unpredictable influences of laboratory environments and procedures on experimental results, discordance between human diseases and “animal models” of disease and interspecies differences in physiology and genetic function.6 How is it possible that scientific discourse seems to be blind to these problems and questions?

When reading the official guidelines, one could easily come to the conclusion that from the utilitarian point of view7 there is no problem, because the official policy is that the benefits of the research must outweigh its expected costs. The relevant EU Directive claims that it is essential “to ensure that each use of an animal is carefully evaluated as to the scientific or educational validity, usefulness and relevance of the expected result of that use. The likely harm to the animal should be balanced against the expected benefits of the project.”8 But as Knight points out, “these assumptions have rarely been verified or, indeed, subjected to rigorous scrutiny of any kind.”9  

When I attended an EU conference dedicated to Animal Welfare and the 3Rs10 (Replacement, Reduction and Refinement), not a single word was said about ethical dilemmas, balancing interests or the level of validity of animal models.  Participants spoke about the technical details and problems in seeking alternatives, but no one asked whether this particular basic research is even morally justified. Animals seemed to be invisible, analogous to scientific papers regarding animal testing.11

On the other hand, animal advocates told me in interviews that when they organized a conference about using animals in science in which they wanted to discuss these questions, no scientists accepted the invitation to attend.  When I looked for participants for my research, I did not get any response from any of the researchers that I approached, so I had to use the snowball method (a non-probability sampling technique whereby existing study subjects recruit future subjects from among their acquaintances) with the help of my friends. Why is it so difficult to open a discussion regarding this issue and to find common ground?

2. Method

Studies based on qualitative research have already been carried out on both sides of this controversy.  In order to understand both sides, I conducted qualitative research with laboratory workers and animal advocates from the Czech Republic. During the semi-structured interviews, I focused on barriers to mutual understanding, stereotypes, their level of knowledge and arguments related to using laboratory animals today and in the future.

3. Conclusion

Though unable to discuss the results in any detail, I will provide a brief overview and conclusion.  As I noticed from interviews, lab workers often do not know the arguments of animal activists, and picture them as “anti-science.” They also told me that they would use alternative methods if they knew some, and most of them displayed positive attitudes to animals. It is difficult to generalize from such a small sample, but it seems that the more positive their attitude toward animals, the stronger the rationalization they need to create to avoid cognitive dissonance. When these rationalizations are internalized it is very difficult to give them up and acknowledge that the opposition has some good points. Also when the opposition is perceived as irrational, uninformed and too emotional, it is hard for the lab workers to take it seriously.

This is why I believe it is mutual misconceptions that hinder the progress of both science and ethics. I find it very important to speak about these barriers and to help establish some platform or conference with both sides of the controversy while allowing an open discussion without the use of stereotypes, accusations or marginalization of each other’s voices.

Tereza Vandrovcová
Psychology Department


1 Andrew Linzey and Clair Linzey (eds.), Normalising the Unthinkable: The Ethics of Using Animals in Research (Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, 2015), 13.

2 Tom Regan, The Case for Animal Rights (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1983).

3 Peter Singer, Animal Liberation: A New Ethics for Our Treatment of Animals (New York: New York Review, 1975).

4 Andrew Knight, The Costs and Benefits of Animal Experiments, (Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 183.

5 Corina Gericke, “Why animal experiments are not needed”, Doctors Against Animal Experiments Germany, 2014, accessed July 25, 2015,

6 Linzey and Linzey (eds.), Normalising the Unthinkable, 19-20.

7 Singer, Animal Liberation.

8 European Union, “Directive 2010/63/EU of the European Parliament and the Council of 22 September 2010 on the protection of animals used for scientific purposes,” Official Journal of the European Union 273 (2010): 36, accessed July 20, 2015,

9 Knight, The Costs and Benefits of Animal Experiments, 4.

10 Animal welfare and the 3Rs under directive 2010(63/EU meeting - 28th August 2014, Prague, Czech Republic.

11 Jacky Z. Turner, “I don’t want to see the pictures: Science writing and the visibility of animal experiments,” Public Understanding of Science 7 (1) (1998):  27-40.

Follow us

Go to top