Lines In The Sand — Revisited

A few weeks ago I wrote about drawing a line in the sand, and how we define what we're willing to eat. It's easy for us to say that we'll eschew animal products as food. The choice between eating a sentient creature that has almost assuredly been brutalized, or eating a vegetable-based diet is now a non-issue; we do not need to consume animal products to live. We have reached a point where we cannot not knowingly participate in the torture of animals. As Gary at stated:

I am also compelled to weigh my inessential desires against others’ most profound interests, such as fear of suffering and the will to live. In nearly all commercial animal agriculture operations in the Western world, we violate those interests to satisfy human greed or habits. I cannot, in good conscience, trample others’ free will in the most violent ways because I like the taste of their flesh or secretions.

We wholeheartedly agree. But what about medical issues?

I read today that pig cell transplants can help people with insulin-dependent diabetes. I haven't done much reading on the topic (and don't plan to). The research appears to be in the early stages of human testing. However, one man had the procedure done ten years ago and is still seeing positive effects, although how much is not clear.

The cells being used in this procedure are pancreatic cells from new-born pigs. They are treated with some kind of algae which makes them "invisible" to the individual's immune system. This is an especially remarkable procedure because the patients do not need to take immuno-suppressant drugs. The cells do wear out over time, so it looks like "booster" injections might be warranted. And then there are the trans-species issues to be concerned about (porcine endogenous retroviruses, in this case)...

So, if in the future, one of us develops a medical condition that could be dramatically improved, or even cured by a transplant from a donor animal, how would we proceed? Does it matter if the animal is killed or if the cells are harvested and the animal kept alive? Over time, I can imagine "factory-harvested" animal cells/organs/secretions with the animals being treated as a product, and therefore handled in the most economically efficient (less humane) manner. I don't want to participate in that, but I assume I'm already benefiting from medical testing on animals... I take aspirin when I have a headache. I've been prescribed vicodin when I had my knees "scoped." I take Nyquil when I have a cold and cannot sleep. Some, if not all, of these medicines have surely been tested on animals. Does that make me a hypocritical vegan?

I know that if Jane's life were on the line, I wouldn't hesitate. I'd be slightly more conflicted if it were my health that was at stake, but overall, I think health trumps compassion.


  1. I certainly see a value in animal testing for medical procedures, but the big problem is that scientists often don’t look down other avenues.

    I read recently of a man cured (yes, cured) of diabetes using a raw vegan diet that’s been around for thousands of years. It only took 4 days for him to no longer need insulin. Would this cure every case? Perhaps not, but why did it take until 2008 to ‘discover’ this cure?

    It’s been said that nutrition science is in its infancy. We don’t put any money into it, because we can’t necessarily patent the results. How unfortunate.

  2. We drive on roads built by slaves, which is neither an endorsement of slavery or an admission that slavery was necessary.

    Similarly, animals are used as experimental subjects in large part because:

    – They have no rights, and scant legal protection
    – It’s cheap to do so
    – It’s a tradition
    – It’s often easier to get a grant for an animal experiment than for a clinical study

    This doesn’t mean that it was scientifically necessary to use animals. Medical history is full of setbacks and costly misleading conclusions from animal data. For instance, animal experiments led researchers to conclude that diabetes was a disease of the liver, not the pancreas.

    OTOH, it was always presumed necessary to use (and kill) animals to create insulin assay tests. Until the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine decided to create an insulin assay test that used no animals. Prior to PCRM’s decision, there was no effort to do this, and the animal experimentation lobby would say – incorrectly (and self-servingly) – that diabetes patients who used insulin assay tests depended on animals for their well-being.

    Society has arbitrarily forced ultimatums on well-intentioned people: Essentially, “If you want this pill, I have to kill this animal.” That puts you in a tough position; you have to choose between two undesirable outcomes. The fact that society has chosen not to offer a third – and achievable – outcome: “You can have this pill and I won’t kill this animal” is not your fault.

  3. “health trumps compassion.”


    I also think about what I’m willing to do myself. I’m a blood, bone marrow and organ donor. If someone needed one, I’d give them a kidney. I understand that the procedures are vastly different (presumably no one would kill me for my kidney and throw the rest of my body away), but if I’m willing to give parts of my body to those that need them (including non-humans; once it’s out of my body, I don’t care who gets it as long as it’s used), I’m also willing to receive.

  4. I’m the kind of person who doesn’t take medication. I can’t remember the last time I went to the doctor for drugs. Neither can I remember the last time I had a headache, or a cold, or any sort of problem where I thought a drug might help. I’m certain my diet has a lot to do with this. But even if I happened to have a migraine, or something just as painful, I probably wouldn’t think of taking a paracetamol or choose to suck a lozenge if I had a sore throat, etc. It’s not because I’m vegan that I choose to do this, it’s just the way I am.

    A long time ago I was prescribed Prozac, before I chose to be Vegan. I haven’t done any research on whether it’s vegan friendly, since it’s not part of my life anymore, but it’s probable that it isn’t in my mind. If I was in the same position now as I was back then, being vegan, I’d still make the choice to take Prozac whether it was tested on animals, etc.

    I suppose that health trumps compassion, but I’d still go as far as I could in taking the most compassionate option there was.

    I’ve been reading your website for a while now and I check back most days. I really enjoy it!

  5. Hi Jason — Interesting (re the raw diet). From a laypersons perspective, it certainly does seem that scientists often use “tried and true” methods of testing without regard for other equally viable alternatives. But in all fairness, I don’t know much about that topic.
    Re nutritional science being in it’s infancy – I’d agree. And it’s not just because we can’t patent the results… Most people just want to go to the doctor and get a pill and be done with their illnesses. Changing your diet is hard work!

    Hi Gary — A few weeks ago I stumbled across and subsequently blogged about a new medical testing technique called high throughput testing which involves combining human cells with the chemicals being tested and some kind of robotic machinery. Very exciting. So, in the future, the issues of being required to compromise our ethics in some way in order to take necessary medications may be moot.
    And you’re right, we don’t have to go back many generations to find that our ancestors perpetrated some cruelty which we have subsequently benefited from. A morally difficult position, but hopefully one that can be eradicated within our lifetimes.

  6. Hi Seitan — That’s an interesting way to look at it. I too am a blood/organ donor. But that is my choice. I’m willing to give. And I’m willing to receive — from other humans who have chosen to give. The problem I’m having here (an so far it’s only theoretical, thankfully) is that animals are not given a choice if they’d like to sacrifice themselves for the betterment of our medical care. Scientists are excited about the procedure mentioned in the post… they are hoping that transplants of tissues from pigs to humans can be used to help combat other diseases as well. Take it one step further… a world where there are cloning farms and animals kept in crates for the specific purpose of having their cells/organs harvested so that we can live. Would you be willing to receive then?

    Hi Sami — Jane’s like that as well. i.e. She suffers thru her headaches most of the time rather than taking aspirin. She’s not overly fond of the idea of taking medication (but when it’s necessary, she’ll follow her doctors instructions to the letter).
    We’d certainly try to take the most compassionate path possible in a medical situation as well. Hopefully, society will evolve to a place where that decision (on the part of the individual) won’t be necessary.
    And finally, thank you for the nice comments on our blog. We try to keep it informative and interesting.

  7. I struggle with this issue because it seems immoral to shift the harm we freely choose to accept when we take a new drug, or use a product, etc. from us onto another unwilling participant (i.e., a non-human animal).

    Human animals benefit from these drugs, which would imply that the potential for harm (or the risk of harm) should be ‘ours’ to accept. To violate a non-human animals rights through this immoral shift of harm seems unjust.

  8. “Take it one step further… a world where there are cloning farms and animals kept in crates for the specific purpose of having their cells/organs harvested so that we can live. Would you be willing to receive then?”

    Yup. Firstly, I still stand by the concept that health trumps compassion (I’m only talking about life and death issues here, not a toothache). Secondly, I don’t think that will ever happen. Cloning an entire animal, just to use parts is expensive and wasteful. The goal of most of the cloning research is to be able to generate the target organs, independent of the animal itself. So, once it’s at the point that it would be used large scale, a cloning farm would just be a bunch of petri dishes and incubators without an animal in sight. I would be more comfortable with that than what happens now. Yes, I realize loads of animals would be used to get to that point, but the hypocrite in me is willing to accept that.

    Also, one thing to remember about the medical testing done on non-human animals is that it doesn’t just benefit humans. A lot of medical research applies to veterinary care as well.

  9. I think health vs. compassion is a complex continuum. What if the benefit was a reduction in arthritis pain?What if you were 98? What if the animal was forced to suffer for long periods of time; or was horribly tortured? What if hundreds of animals were tortured for you? What if you had to watch? (It might be argued that you should have to watch in order to make an informed and morally honest decision.) What if one of the animals was your companion animal? At some point, would you scream out “Stop; I’ll die instead?”

    I would agree that in dire circumstances, normal everyday morals are often thrown out the window, whether or not there are animals involved. In concentration camps, sometimes people are so desperate for food that they turn in family members in hiding, in return for a crust of bread.

    How many of us would live up to our lofty ideals in matters of life and death? In the lifeboat, perhaps we would consider it more ethical to save the child whose mother is on board rather than us, but would we willingly jump out?

    I stress again that animal experimentation goes on largely because of non-scientific factors, such as money, pressure to publish, habit, lack of interest and funding for alternatives. In nearly every field of human health, we have suffered significant setbacks because of animal data, and if you study the medical record, it becomes clear that many of the advances credited to animal labs really are due to clinical discoveries, human-focused research, technological advances, and other non-animal methodologies. Read Sacred Cows and Golden Geese for a primer.

    Independent, non-AR medical panels have estimated that animal experiments played a negligible role in extending human lifespan. But even if that were not the case, now more than ever we are in a position to permanently drop animal labs and replace them with far more ethical and reliable methodologies.

    There are plenty of alternatives to organs harvested from animals – assuming that xenotransplantation doesn’t cause the next SARS or AIDS epidemic. For instance, change human organ donation from opt-in to opt-out; improve anti-rejection drugs; focus more research on artificial organs.

    Then again, if we used some the multi-billions of dollars in animal research money and factory farm subsidies to help people eat better and exercise more, there would be a much lower need for organ transplants in the first place. But there’s not a whole lot of profit or prestige (in the science world) in promoting vegetarianism or jogging.

    Using animals to model human illness is not only error-prone and inefficient compared to non-animal methodologies, it is also about the worst way to garner health benefits for animals. First, a question: Who will sacrifice their dog or cat to a small cage in an animal lab, where the animals will be infected with human cancers, or have their backs broken, or be forced to vomit repeatedly, or have one of their eyes removed and electrodes drilled into their brain, or be given cocaine and impregnated so the fetus can be removed, etc….and then killed after the experiment…all possibly because a researcher knows how to work the grant system, and knowing that almost certainly there are more rigorously scientific non-animal methods being passed over? I don’t see too many hands.

    When testing human drugs on animals, the unwitting victims are typically given high doses for short periods of time – which does not model the drug’s efficacy and side effects in the test species – or target species – when given at normal doses for normal periods. If the drug is useful for humans, there’s no guarantee that it will be used on animals; except for a relative handful of drugs, there’s not enough market for drug companies to determine dosages, much less package the product, for animals. Animals in labs suffer from a range of artifact-based problems – from high blood pressure to spontaneous tumors – that throw off results. Animal experiments are notorious for extrapolation errors. Think Vioxx, hormone replacement therapy, thalidomide. The list is endless. Aspirin has wildly different effects in different species. Chocolate is good for humans and can be deadly for some animals. The head of the Natl. Cancer Institute once said the the history of cancer research is cures that worked on mice and failed in humans. Animal researchers couldn’t even prove that smoking causes cancer despite a mountain of human clinical and epidemiological evidence to the contrary. Pacemakers, heart valves, cardiac catheterization, and other lifesaving devices and procedures were developed *despite* misleading animal data that suggested they would not work. Animal-based toxicity tests are often no more predictive than a coin toss.

    This same problem occurs when extrapolating results from one nonhuman species to another. Even mice and rats only agree 70 percent of the time in tests of anti-tumor drugs or substances’ cancer-causing potential. And the results in the highly-engineered lab rat may not be transferable to a pet rat or even an older rat.

    The best way to advance veterinary medicine, by far, is to study naturally occurring diseases in a diverse population of the target species.

  10. Hi Alex, We’re struggling with this issue too. As I mentioned in the post, I think our bottom line is that health trumps compassion. I am conflicted… I’m not sure where I’d actually say “no, I won’t take that medicine/have that procedure.” In life or death situations, I know I would opt for the medication/procedure, as would Jane. As for plastic surgery, we’d easily pass on that (I have no idea here, but I’m assuming that plastics were originally tested on animals). But what about aspirin or Tylenol or a lymphectomy? How much do I know about how my medication / procedure was tested or developed? (Nothing) When my doctor prescribes medication, does s/he know if it is a “vegan” medication, or even if there is a vegan option out there? I’m not sure I’ll be able to have a clearly defined plan of action here.

    Hi Seitan, Thanks for enlightening me. I feel much better about petri dishes than crates!
    As for the issue of veterinary care, see Gary’s comment above. Jane and I are still defining our vegan boundaries. It’s good to get others’ perspectives.

  11. Gary, Thank you for the information. Jane and I are continuing to try and define where on the continuum we stand. In life or death instances it is fairly easy to make the choice, but any other situation requires thought, and more information than we are given in the moment. As consumers, we’re shielded from so much (or is it that so much is hidden from us?). The more we learn, the more appalled we become. It’s hard to imagine that, as a species, we still perpetrate this kind of cruelty and barbarism.

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