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8 Sources of Harm to Animals Used in Research

The Importance of Nonmaleficence in Human and Animal Research

by Marsha Rakestraw

January 17, 2023

Some may not admit it, but (nonhuman) animals used in research experience significant pain, suffering, and other harms–without their consent, and often for little or no benefit to them or to others.

Currently, almost anything can be done to an animal in the name of science.

As recently as just a few decades ago, humans were still subjected to egregious research practices. Fortunately, The Belmont Report, published in 1979, established foundational ethical principles to guide research involving human subjects.

But despite the fact that centuries of research show the capacities and needs of nonhuman animals, scientists have failed to extend protections like those in The Belmont Report to animals.

The practice of research involving animals must come to terms with centuries of scientific findings that lay bare the capacities and experiences of nonhuman beings.
~ Dr. Hope Ferdowsian

Cover of The Belmont Report publication
The Belmont Report was published in 1979 and established principles for extending research protections to humans.

A Belmont Report for Animals?

In 2019, PZI President, Dr. Hope Ferdowsian, and several colleagues published “A Belmont Report for Animals?”, which calls for improving medical research ethics by extending the principles of respect for autonomy, beneficence (“do good”), nonmaleficence (“do no harm”), and justice to nonhuman animals.

In 2022, Hope and her colleagues, Drs. Agustin Fuentes, L. Syd M Johnson, Barbara J. King, and Jessica Pierce, published a companion article, “Toward an Anti-Maleficent Research Agenda.” This article summarizes the harms that using animals in research causes and outlines recommendations for transforming medical research so that it protects and benefits both people and animals.

As the authors note,

“There is an urgent need for scientists and policymakers to acknowledge the importance of antimaleficence within the context of human and animal research.”


Sources of Harm to Animals Used in Research

As part of the article, the authors outline some of the ways that research using animals harms them.

Here are 8 sources of harm to animals used in biomedical and behavioral research:

1. Holding them captive.

Captivity causes a range of physical, physiological, and psychological harms. Regulations often focus on things like the size of cages, rather than the fact that captivity itself is harmful.

2. Denying them self-determination and bodily sovereignty.

Just like with humans, nonhuman animals need to make decisions about their own needs and lives. Research using animals violates their “bodily sovereignty.”

3. Inflicting pain, injury, disease, or discomfort on them.

Animals used in research are subjected unwillingly to numerous types of pain, injury, disease, and discomfort, from procedures involving restraints, burns, and other traumas, to lack of control over food, water, and shelter, to suffering caused by the infliction of disease, surgeries, and other stressors.

4. Forcing them to breed and denying them their sexual and family freedoms.

Animals used in research are denied the freedom to determine how and when to engage in courtship, mating, and other sexual and family freedoms. They may be isolated, forced to repeatedly have intercourse, and/or have their infants taken from them.

5. Depriving them of life’s full dimensions.

All animals need the freedom to engage with rich, complex, and stimulating environments and experiences. Life in a laboratory does not offer individuals the complexity that life has to offer.

6. Forcing them to witness harm and suffering.

Many animals feel empathy. Being forced to watch others suffer repeatedly compounds trauma.

7. Forcing and manipulating them into complying.

Animals used in research are often forced or manipulated into complying and are almost never allowed to consent or to refuse consent–let alone leave.

8. Killing them, often painfully.

As the article’s authors note, “Being killed, and having one’s life deliberately abbreviated, is a harm.” The ways in which animals used in research are killed often cause pain and suffering.

Rosie the rescued rat loved living life to the fullest.
Rosie the rescued rat loved living life to the fullest.

“Animals value their lives. Many animal species recognize and grieve death and will act to preserve their own lives and the lives of others.” ~ from Toward an Anti-Maleficent Research Agenda

An Antimaleficent Research Framework

The article also outlines the implications and recommendations of adopting an antimaleficent research agenda, such as shifting federal funding and transforming education and training pathways.

Read the article.

There are a lot of ways that using animals in research harms them.

We need a research framework that protects and benefits both people and animals.

And this framework should be founded on antimaleficence: actively identifying and reducing actual and potential harms—within a broad framework of justice and fairness.

Find out more about how PZI is working to transform medical research and how you can take action.

Article citation:

Ferdowsian, Hope, Agustin Fuentes, L. Syd M Johnson, Barbara J. King, and Jessica Pierce. “Toward an Anti-Maleficent Research Agenda.Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 31, no. 1 (2022): 54–58.

Marsha Rakestraw is a senior education, outreach, and communications specialist with Phoenix Zones Initiative.

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