Could Stem Cell Research End Animal Experimentation?

Human stem cell
Human stem cell. David Silverman / Getty Images

The CNN headline is certainly enticing: "Scientist: Stem cells could end animal testing." However, as one reads the article, it becomes clear that the headline is not completely accurate. The scientist featured in the article, Christine Mummery, a Professor of Developmental Biology at Leiden University Medical Center in The Netherlands, does not say that stem cell research could end vivisection. Instead, the article reports that Mummery "described how using embryonic stem cells to create human heart cells could be a viable and scientifically exciting alternative to animal testing" at a recent scientific meeting in the UK.

Developing one alternative to animal testing is not the same as ending animal testing. Stem cell research may someday replace certain tests, but will not replace all vivisection. Mummery uses the example of early stages of drug testing. What the article does not mention is that a drug passing these early stages may then be tested on live animals, and eventually humans, in later stages.

The Ideal Model

As Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine points out, the ideal model for human medical research is humans. Since ethical guidelines restrict experimentation on humans, scientists use animal alternatives, cell cultures and other methods where human subjects are unavailable. Just as a culture of human cells in a Petri dish cannot simulate a whole, live human being, a non-human animal cannot simulate a human being.

Could All Vivisection be Replaced Someday?

Given all that, is it possible that science will someday develop enough non-animal tests to replace all non-human animal experimentation?

Probably not. Stem cell research, computer modeling, or ethical human experimentation may replace certain types of animal experiments. However, cell cultures cannot duplicate a whole, living animal. Not nearly enough is known for computer models to simulate all the interactions of the extremely complex biological systems and functions of a whole, living animal in the foreseeable future.

And some experiments will always be considered too unethical to perform on humans.

However, whether alternatives to animal research exist is irrelevant to the animal rights position against vivisection. If the experiments are too unethical to be performed on humans, they should not be performed on non-human animals.

How Does This Affect the Animal Rights and Animal Welfare Positions?

From an animal welfare standpoint, the availability of non-animal tests is very important, as animal welfarists do not object to all uses of animals. Most would probably object to cosmetics testing or other animal experimentation that does not offer some sort of medical advancement. For those animal advocates who believe in reducing but not eliminating vivisection, finding more humane methods is essential and stem cell research will probably play a part in reducing vivisection.

However, the animal rights position that humans have no right to use and abuse animals stands no matter what kinds of alternatives to animal testing are available.

As Mark Twain very eloquently wrote in 1899:

I believe I am not interested to know whether Vivisection produces results that are profitable to the human race or doesn't. To know that the results are profitable to the race would not remove my hostility to it. The pains which it inflicts upon unconsenting animals is the basis of my enmity towards it, and it is to me sufficient justification of the enmity without looking further.