HIV Research and Animal Rights
The medical and ethical value of animal experiments is questionable and, in any case, virtual reality technology will soon make animal research redundant
We live in a universe of 100 billion galaxies, each containing 100 billion stars. Millions of these stars are like our sun. They have solar systems with planets similar to Earth. Statistical probability suggests that many of these planets sustain human-like life; some less developed than us and others more advanced.
How would we feel if one of these technologically superior civilisations colonised Earth and decided to imprison us in tiny cages and exploit us for food, sport, entertainment and medical research? Yet that is exactly what we do to other animal species; causing them great pain, suffering and death.
In recent years, the fear and panic caused by HIV has been manipulated to give a new legitimacy to medical experiments on animals. In AIDS labs around the world, monkeys and chimpanzees are held in solitary confinement in bare metal cages with hardly enough room to turn around. Deliberately infected with HIV and related viruses, these intelligent, feeling creatures suffer months of intense physical pain and psychological distress as they are progressively ravaged by opportunistic infections and cancers.
What gives us the right to abuse other sentient beings in this way? Some people argue that the need to find a cure for HIV is so great that it justifies such suffering. If HIV justifies cruelty for the sake of the greater good, then why not experiment on humans?
Some people excuse animal research on the grounds that other species are inferior and less intelligent than us. The appalling logic of this argument is that it would also be legitimate to experiment on people with low IQs and psychiatric disorders.
The fact that our laws protect such people from abuse is based on the recognition that the right to be spared suffering is not dependant on a certain level of intelligence or the ability to articulate one's rights. Rather, it is based on the capacity for physical and emotional feelings; a capacity which we share with other animal species.
Apart from these moral arguments, animal-based AIDS research is also bad science. The results of experiments on other species cannot be generalised to human beings because we have a different physiology. Strychnine kills humans but not monkeys; and penicillin is deadly to guinea pigs yet harmless to people.
The danger is that HIV research on animals might produce cures and vaccines which test safely on those species, but which could be ineffective or even dangerous for humans. That's what happened with Thalidomide. After years of animal tests which supposedly proved its safety, Thalidomide was put on the market. The result: 10,000 babies born with severe deformities.
Thus, even if scientists can produce a treatment for HIV in laboratory animals, there is no guarantee it will work or be safe for humans.
What are the alternatives to animal research? The new 'super-computer' technology, known as virtual reality, offers a much more efficient and accurate way to do medical research.
Virtual reality is the computer-simulation of the real world using life-like three dimensional interactive models (based on the technology which created aircraft flight simulators, but much more sophisticated). In this artificial world, incredibly detailed and precise models of living things, objects, places and events can be replicated and manipulated at will.
Within a few years, this emerging technology should enable us to create virtual reality human bodies and conduct virtual reality medical experiments using virtual reality drug treatments.
Because virtual reality research is based on computer-generated models, it can get results much faster. HIV drug trials that might have taken five years in real time may take only five weeks in virtual realitytime.
Conclusion: the denial of rights to animals by humans (speciesism) is analogous to the denial of rights to lesbians and gay men by heterosexuals (heterosexism). Both these forms of oppression derive from a prejudiced and chauvinistic mentality which devalues 'difference' and 'otherness'.
Likewise, animals deserve rights for much the same reason that lesbians and gay men deserve rights. All human and non-human animals have a shared capacity for feelings. This recognition gives society a moral obligation to confer the right to be spared physical and psychological suffering on all animals, irrespective of their species, race, sex, class, disability or sexual orientation.
As lesbians and gay men who know the pain of homophobia, we have a special duty to speak out against the exploitation of animals in HIV research. To demand rights for ourselves, and to then deny rights to other sentient creatures, would be a sad betrayal of the ideals of liberation and emancipation which have been at the heart of the struggle for lesbian and gay freedom.
Pink Paper, 8 June 1991.
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