Animal vivisection and ‘Laudato Si’: an holistic approach
The European Commission has just refused to take the action requested by the European Citizens’ Initiative (ECI) ‘Stop Vivisection’, which called for a total ban of use of animals in scientific research and for the compulsory use of alternative testing methods. This ECI, taking a radical approach to animal protection, referred to the “right to life, to liberty and to welfare of all living beings” and the “fundamental rights of animals”, and to the “abolition of animal experimentation”. The perspective of the promoters was that of the invalidity of “the ‘animal model’ for predicting human response” as it, allegedly, cannot provide “data directly relevant for the human species” as some alternatives can.
In the Communication from the Commission on the ECI, of 3.6.2015, the promoters have been told of the disagreement of the EU executive body with regard to such invalidity. Recalling examples of ‘treatments’ developed thanks to animal research – anesthetics, vaccines, penicillin, insulin, organ transplants, to name a few – the Commission shares the position in favor of phasing out animal testing, but concludes that it is still required in certain cases and, therefore, that the current EU legislation is adequate. Moreover, the European Commission warns that a total ban can redirect research to countries where standards of protection are lower, therefore where more animals are required for achievement of the same results. As regards the replacement of the animal model, it claims that actions are being taken to “enable faster progress in the uptake and use of alternative approaches”. Alternatives include methods that make use of human embryonic stem cells (hESC) – and that have been financed by the EU – whose harvesting entails the destruction of human embryos.
‘Laudato si’, the value of all creatures and the hierarchy among them: the case of animal experimentation
On 18 June last, Pope Francis grabbed international media attention with the presentation of his first encyclical, devoted to ‘integral ecology’ and including important developments to the Church’s magisterium with regard to the moral status of animals and to our responsibility towards them. The value of each animal is not dependent on their usefulness to humankind, as they “have a value of their own”. Human beings are put not in the center but on the ridge of creation; however, primacy brings responsibility: “everything is connected”, and we shall not declare “independence from reality” and act with “absolute dominion”; instead, we shall “respect creation and its inherent laws (and) our ‘dominion’ over the universe should be understood more properly in the sense of responsible stewardship”.
As ‘integral ecology’ necessarily includes human beings, who possess “a particular dignity above other creatures”, Pope Francis considers it “troubling that, when some ecological movements defend the integrity of the environment, rightly demanding that certain limits be imposed on scientific research, they sometimes fail to apply those same principles to human life”. And he proceeds asking “how can we genuinely teach the importance of concern for other vulnerable beings (…) if we fail to protect a human embryo?”, only to conclude that, with regard to experimentation with human embryos, there is a “tendency to justify transgressing all boundaries”.
This tendency referred to by Pope Francis is also felt at the EU level where the legislation and the practice of the Commission do not greatly differ from the position of the proponents of the ECI when it comes to the promotion of alternative methods that make use of hESC (see also europeinfos no. 149, of May 2012).
In this field, a debate must be carried out that be dispassionate, non-ideological, ethical and evidence-based. There can be no doubt that the legal principle of the 3Rs (replacement, reduction, refinement) is also a moral one: thus, to give an example, it is unethical not to spare millions of animals used in duplicative chemical toxicity tests. However, an holistic approach to this question ought to recognize that replacement with alternative methods that make use of hESC is also ethically inadmissible. Primacy has always to be recognized to the human beings: for caring or saving human lives, animal testing should be given priority to researching on human beings (cf. Article 5 of the Additional Protocol to the Oviedo Convention, concerning Biomedical Research), unless it has been proven ineffective or there are better, non-animal, ethical alternatives. With the protection of animals, a new priority, human beings should not become the new guinea pigs either.