Embryonic stem cell research (ESCR) remains today an area of contention. However, one area of ESCR that is rarely discussed relates to the rights of embryos–not those of humans, but those of the other species that roam the planet. It is clear that embryos destroyed in the process of research are at least a form of life, yet the question remains: how do the rights of embryos compare to, say, a full-grown water buffalo or a mouse?

It seems that some countries, through their laws on animal experimentation, have implicitly answered this question. One such country is Switzerland, a country which continues to feverishly push for the protection of plant and animal dignity. In 1976, Switzerland adopted the Animal Protection Act, limiting the circumstances in which animals may be used in experimentation. In Section 6, Article 16, the Act declares that pain, suffering or injury may only be inflicted on an animal and when the purpose of the experiment can be achieved “in no other manner.”

Although the law was passed five years before the first embryonic stem cell research in the world was undertaken, and twenty-two years before the first successful culturing of stem cells from human embryos, the law swallows embryonic stem cell research into its belly. As ESCR is a method of testing and experimentation, the Swiss law, with its strong protection of animals against the misery of experimentation, affords greater protection to rats than potential human life.

In other words, in Switzerland, if a researcher were to seek a result and have two possibilities of testing, the first being a procedure that would cause pain to, for example, one rat, and the second being a procedure that would require the destruction of a human embryo, the Swiss law requires that researchers perform the procedure destroying the human embryo. In fact, the Swiss law, taken to its logical end, would never allow the infliction of pain on a rat through experimentation, even if the other option was destroying thousands of potential human lives. Switzerland is not alone, and indeed, without determining the rights of an embryo, such results are only likely to increase.

Can the above result be justified? Disregarding the obvious economic burdens the law creates, is it justifiable to accord a rat with more rights than a human life, even a potential human life?

It seems clear that the scientific and legal communities need to pause and consider this quandary. One option to obviate the unfortunate result of the Swiss law would be to argue that humans are also animals, making unborn human offspring the same as potential animals. This sleight of hand is even more unsatisfying, however, as humans surely have more intrinsic rights than a rat or a mouse. Additionally, this definitional maneuver does not answer the question of the proper allocation of rights between human embryos and lab animals.

Another option, and the one that seems more prudent, would be to afford embryos, due to their humanity, more protection than animals. But on what basis, more than just our gut instinct, should we give such protection, and how far should the protection extend? Also, if embryos deserve more rights than animals–yet, as they can be destroyed in the name of research, are less than human–what are they?

It seems we have allowed ourselves to become so enraptured by scientific advance and the humane treatment of animals that we have neglected the mental and theological heavy-lifting our actions require. Indeed, by our rampant pursuit of animal dignity, it seems may be on the verge of losing something even more important: human dignity.

Timothy Van Hal

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7 Responses to Embryos Are Animals Too?

  1. Mike Ritter says:

    I noticed this moments after posting and I think it is tangentially related: the US is putting restrictions on funding scientific research on chimpanzees. They will only provide funding if the research meets certain criteria – including that it is necessary for human health. Is it a first step towards similar laws as those found in Switzerland? Here is the NY Times article: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/16/science/chimps-in-medical-research.html?_r=1&ref=science

  2. Mike Ritter says:

    This is an interesting discussion. I would just note that there are major differences between embryonic stem cells and adult stem cells. One important difference is that the former come from embryos and the later come from developed animals or people. Therefore, rather than considering whether the law allows taking adult stem cells from adult animals v. taking embryonic stems cells from human embryos, one might ask how the law views taking embryonic stem cells from animal embryos v. human embryos. Presumably if the law states that a human embryo is not yet a human being, then arguably an animal embryo is not yet an animal. Check out this website for more information on stem cells: http://stemcells.nih.gov/info/basics/basics5.asp

  3. Seamus Kelly says:

    Policymakers often face the daunting task of weighing the value of human life when they legislate and regulate. War is an obvious example, but health and safety regulations are even more applicable. Sometimes choosing one regulation over another means a certain percentage of the population will be considerably more vulnerable, often fatally. In this sense, the Swiss government has decided that the lives of millions of people suffering from Parkinson’s, Lou Gehrig’s disease, and many other terrible conditions outweigh the contested life of a stem cell.

    According to your summary of the statute, the Swiss government would allow painful testing on a three year-old thoroughbred horse if the results could reduce the harm of Alzheimer’s for your hypothetical 65 year-old human. This conclusion, of course, assumes no other ways to achieve the result. But because they value humans more than animals, Swiss legislators have left the door open for scientific animal cruelty in just such a scenario. Fortunately for the three year-old horse, cells derived from humans are far more applicable to treating human diseases than those derived from mice, rats, and horses. Scientist don’t use stem cells to avoid hurting animals, they use them because they are superior for the intended use. Stem cell research certainly raises ethical and philosophical questions- so much so that I suspect many proponents of stem cell research would welcome another method. But scientists are committed to using the best available technology to achieve their goals, which currently entails the use of stem cells.

    Your post concludes with some heavy questions– what are stem cells in terms of humanity, and what impacts do their use have on human dignity? There is a sharp divide in answering the first question, allowing for no grey area. Whatever stem cells are, they have the potential to save millions of actual lives. I opine placing a premium on contentious theoretical life over actual existing life flies in the face of human dignity. You are welcome to disagree- free will is a fundamental component of any religious or lay definition of human dignity. But animal rights have no bearing on this disagreement.

  4. Kathryn Kuhn says:

    What strikes me about the issue you raise is how intimately human embryonic research and animal testing are entangled, meaning they are not currently viewed as true alternatives in the US. If we take a quick look at the development of embryonic stem cell research we see that much of the progress made in this area has been achieved through animal testing. For example, animal embryonic research being conducted on mice, sheep, and hamsters in the 1980s was integral to the derivation of human embryonic stem cells a decade later. Today animals are used to experiment with budding therapeutic procedures that cannot be conducted on human subjects under current US regulations. The debate you raise will likely not be resolved quickly, given the contention of the underlying issue – the status of the human embryo. So for the immediate future, it appears that in the US human embryonic research and animal testing will remain wed.

  5. Joanna Collins says:

    Your point is well-taken that the basis of rights should not solely be the ability to feel pain because that could lead to the exclusion of certain adult humans, such as those in a state of unconsciousness. Nevertheless, I believe that vigorous animal protection laws are necessary to prevent the abuses and indignities that have too often been ignored in animal experimentation and the food industries. Even if such laws have an unintended impact on the use of human embryos, I wonder what the alternative is – offer less protection to animals? If animal experimentation and the use of human embryos in scientific research are inextricably linked, in that greater protection for animals leads to the destruction of more human embryos, perhaps the solution lies in more integrated legislation. Rather than having “animal protection laws” and “human embryo laws”, maybe we need to address them together.

    Additionally, without knowing too much about the field of scientific research, I wonder what the approach should be if, in fact, medical and technological advancement are the underlying goals. I am curious to know if human embryos are a better analogue to more developed humans than are animals. If that is the case, maybe we should be using human embryos rather than rats. I think the answer should be at least considered when crafting legislation in this area.

  6. Timothy Van Hal says:

    While it may be true that embryos arguably cannot feel pain, does that mean they should not have rights and that animals who can have pain should have more? Does the ability to feel pain guarantee rights to living creatures? I agree that the lawmakers did not intend to reach the outcome they did, that is, implicitly making a statement about the rights of human embryos as being below that of animals, but that does not solve the problem. The idea that the ability to sense pain imbues rights cannot stand, as such a declaration would hold many of the abortions performed in this country as murder or at least grossly reckless, given the fact that science points the likelihood that a fetus can feel pain at 20 weeks but it remains legal in many states to abort a fetus thereafter. Additionally, if the avoidance of pain or injury bestows rights, it would be possible to terminate the life of a anesthetized individual against that individual’s will, without the violation of these rights, so long as the person was anesthetized without the pain or injury.

    It seems that, although condemning unnecessarily animal cruelty is a laudable goal, it can be dangerous if rights are not properly ascribed. If we allow our societies to be reigned by a majoritarian system of rights, that is, a system where rights are bestowed or denied based upon the consensus of the majority (or the majority of those with power to enforce their views), we run the pregnant risk of precisely the outcome the Swiss brings. Values must be inherent, immutable, and come from outside of society – from a higher source and authority. If it is otherwise, we leave ourselves open to the dangerous consequences of history when men were designated as less than men and thereby exterminated. The same is arguably occurring now, as individual, unique beings are being denied their rights due to their stage of development and inability to feel pain, rather than their intrinsic and immutable value as living beings. If rights are ascribed only relative to age, who is to say that a three year-old thoroughbred horse does not have more rights than a 65 year old Alzheimer patient? Or a monkey in his prime more rights than the rights of a preemie baby human? I realize I am pushing the limits of this topic, but I am doing so in order to illustrate that scientists have chosen to charge forward in embryonic stem-cell research without thinking of the repercussions their actions are having. And the repercussions are real.

  7. Joanna Collins says:

    It seems like the Swiss Law has some bizarre and perhaps inconsistent consequences for human embryos. Nevertheless, this appears to be an important step in the right direction for the dignity of living beings. The reaches experiments with animals which “cause the animal’s pain, suffering, injury, intensive fear or significantly disturb their general condition.” What of the fact that, while living animals are capable of experiencing pain and fear, a human embryo arguably cannot? Irrespective of one’s stance toward the status of embryos, there seem to be some important differences between an animal that is presently living, breathing, and feeling in the world and an embryo that has yet to be born. It would clearly be ideal to maintain the protections to animals under the Swiss Law without undermining any rights that an embryo may have. However, until we are able to arrive at such a solution, perhaps it would be best to continue upholding the dignity of animals in this way. Tim, your post raises some really interesting issues that definitely need to be addressed by science and the community at large. Thanks for a great read!