AIDS and Animal Rights
The ethical case against AIDS research involving animal experimentation.
It sickens me to see chimpanzees and other animals being abused in the name of scientific research to combat AIDS. Equally sickening is the silence and indifference of gay and AIDS organisations towards this medical barbarism.
AIDS is a terrible illness. We all want to see a cure and vaccine for HIV as soon as possible. But does the end justify the means? Can it be right to remedy the suffering of people with AIDS through the deliberate infliction of suffering on other sentient species?
Given our own experience of oppression, I find it surprising that few lesbians and gay men speak out against the exploitation of animals in AIDS laboratories. Much is this exploitation is being justified in our name, or in the name of our loved ones with HIV. We queers don't like being victimised. Why, then, do we tolerate the victimisation of other species?
Several of my closest friends have died from AIDS. I have seen first-hand the pain and anguish it causes. Indeed, it is precisely because of this first-hand knowledge of suffering and loss that I also feel such a sense of outrage when other living, feeling creatures - especially intelligent primates - are wilfully injected with HIV and subjected to other gruesome experiments in the name of conquering AIDS.
In addition to the intense cruelty involved in many of these vivisection experiments, the animals are usually kept in the most appalling laboratory conditions. Chimpanzees, for example, have evolved to live a roaming tree-top existence in large family groups. Instead, AIDS scientists isolate them in tiny metal cages where they barely have enough room to turn around.
This solitary confinement is, in itself, a form of gross maltreatment. It results in stress and anxiety for the animals, leading to psychological disorders and physical ill-health.
Even prior to their imprisonment in medical laboratories, much suffering is inflicted on chimpanzees. Many are taken from the wild as infants; usually by shooting their mothers. For every chimpanzee that reaches a laboratory alive, between five and ten die during capture or later during transportation due to physical abuse, dehydration and starvation.
In West Africa, partly as a result of this "slave trade" in animals, chimpanzees are now an endangered species, with their population today being only two per cent of what it was 100 years ago.
Faced with such barbarism, it seems incumbent on the lesbian and gay community, and people with HIV, to speak out against this AIDS-related animal research - especially since it is increasingly being justified in our name and for our alleged benefit.
If we still hold true to the universalist, emancipatory ideals that inspired the modern lesbian and gay liberation movement, we cannot possibly collude with the oppression of other species in order to deliver ourselves from the oppression of AIDS. To demand rights for ourselves as homosexuals and people with HIV, and then deny rights to other sentient creatures who share much of our DNA, would be a grotesque betrayal of the liberatory vision which has been at the heart of the struggle for queer freedom.
The moral case for opposing AIDS-related animal experiments, and all other forms of vivisection, closely mirrors the ethical arguments for universal human rights. Speciesism (the doctrine of human superiority that is used to deny rights to non-human animals) is immoral for many of the same reasons that racism and homophobia are immoral.
Together with the farming of animals for food production and their exploitation for sport and entertainment, the use of animals for scientific and medical research involves a negation of their right to be spared suffering and death.
Many animals used in AIDS research are intelligent, sentient beings, capable of thinking and feeling. Endowed with a brain and nervous system, however simple and instinctive, they enjoy pleasure but fear pain. They share with us the full range of emotions, from happiness to sorrow.
This capacity for feelings is the common bond that unites members of the animal kingdom, human and non-human. It obligates us to confer rights on other species and to treat them with compassion. They have a right to be spared physical and psychological suffering in the same way that humans do. The victimisation of any living, thinking, feeling creature is wrong full stop - regardless of sexuality, class, gender, race, disability or species.
According to the moral philosopher, Peter Singer, the struggle for animal liberation "marks an expansion of our moral horizons beyond our own species and is thus a significant stage in the development of human ethics."
Writing in his landmark book, In Defence of Animals, Singer points out that at an earlier stage of human development people confined rights solely to their immediate family and tribe. Those beyond this intimate circle were regarded as rivals and enemies - and were deemed to have no rights at all.
Gradually, the concept of rights was expanded to include people from others races, nations, classes and religions. Today, with the notion of universal human rights, it is being extended to include all of humanity. The next logical step, argues Singer, is to recognise the rights of other species.
Until the last century, of course, most of the human population was denied even the most basic human rights. The exclusivity of rights to the European race, the bourgeois class and the male sex was premised on the alleged inferiority of women, black people and the working class.
Even in 2001, lesbians and gay men continue to experience the denial of rights by many heterosexuals. Homophobes proclaim their superiority over us, deny the equal validity of our sexuality, and treat us as second class citizens.
In a similar way, membership of different and supposedly inferior species is used to deny rights to non-human animals and to legitimate their oppression in AIDS research.
Can this be right? Do we have an obligation to speak out against such cruelties? Surely our experience of prejudice, discrimination and violence enable us to understand the barbarism of vivisection and to empathise with the suffering of other species?
As victims of oppression, queer people should be standing up for the rights of victimised animals. Unlike us, they cannot communicate their pain or articulate their rights. Dispossessed and powerless, they have no voice other than the voice of enlightened, compassionate human beings. If we do not speak out against the abuse of animals in AIDS research, who will?
Tatchell Talks 24, Rainbow Network, 7 August 2001
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