In thinking about potential replacements for animal testing, it seems as though stem cell research offers a promising alternative: pre-clinical trial drug tests could be performed on human tissue in a lab, obviating the need for any live animal involvement whatsoever. Lab-grown human tissue might even offer a better testing ground for drug side effects than animals, as human and animal biologies (and subsequent reactions to drugs) differ significantly and not always in predictable ways. However, due to the use of embryonic stem cells, stem cell research is almost impossible to separate from abortion and the question of when life begins. If life begins at the moment of fertilization, what does it mean to swap out an animal life for an embryonic cell? I pose this question mostly because I stumbled upon an entire page devoted to the question of abortion and animal rights on the Animal Liberation Front’s webpage. Are animal rights activists required to support and defend abortion pro-life activists? And if so, where does that leave the question of drug testing prior to clinical trials?
Pro-life and animal rights activists are both (broadly speaking) concerned with protecting life and preventing sentient pain. The latter does not seem like it would matter much to a stem cell, but the question of fetal pain is almost inextricably linked to abortion law and policy in the United States. In 2010, Nebraska passed a ban on abortions after 20 weeks based on evidence that a fetus may experience and respond to pain at that point, a direct challenge of the Roe v. Wade (1973) prohibition of abortion bans prior to fetal viability. Scientific consensus on the question of fetal pain is hard to come by, as various published studies can be cited to defend different positions. If fetal pain bans can be used to chip away at Roe v. Wade’s authority, they may very well be the key to achieving the pro-life movement’s major goal: overturning Roe v. Wade altogether. And in that sense, I find it interesting that both pro-life and animal rights activists focus on the experience of pain as a crucial criterion for an action’s moral wrongness, because researchers and doctors looking for more powerful ARVs or an HIV vaccine are also seeking to avert pain, as are women seeking an abortion. So whose pain matters more? Is there a scale, to measure and compare and contrast different experiences of pain? Or is pain in and of itself a wrong, regardless of the amount? But how to avert one pain without causing another?
The question of protecting life is slightly more problematic, as the question of when life begins is likely to affect a person’s perception of animal rights and the pro-life movement. If life begins at the moment of fertilization, then an embryonic stem cell has the same life value as a rhesus macaque, and the question is no longer a question: animal rights activists, as defenders of all life, are obligated to defend both an embryo and a macaque. But if life does not begin at the moment of fertilization, where does that put embryonic stem cells? Again, this question has more relevance in context of American abortion debates. If any abortion is wrong because it necessarily ends a life and potentially also causes pain, then animal rights activists and the pro-life movement have nearly identical agendas. Which really only causes a problem in terms of stem cell research, leading back to my original question: is stem cell research truly a viable alternative to animal research? Or does the American pro-life movement undercut the possibility of using stem cells to avoid animal testing? And if it does, what alternative exists that will allow all interested parties to protect life and avert pain (as they define both of those things)? Where is the middle ground?