It is so important that I begin this piece by acknowledging what a difficult position this debate will undoubtedly pose for many, if not all of our readers. It is without judgment, criticism or holier than thou sentiment that I proceed.
The debate over using animals, domestic or otherwise, in medical research, experimentation and procedure is not a new one. For many, the line has been drawn and we are divided as a species of human animals, deciding what is ethically acceptable and morally responsible in way of our treatment of non-human animals.
This is clear, in that so many people live with and love their dogs, cats, rabbits, ferrets and even fish, but still choose to eat sentient beings like cows, pigs, chickens, turkeys and even goats or deer. This is not to say that all meat-eaters approve of animal experimentation or that all vegetarians and vegans abhor it. This is where the labels begin to blur.
By definition, veganism denotes a philosophy and way of living which seeks to exclude–as far as is possible and practical–all forms of exploitation of, and cruelty to, animals for food, clothing or any other purpose; and by extension, promotes the development and use of animal-free alternatives for the benefit of humans, animals and the environment.
But what happens to even the most devoted of vegans whose wife, mother or daughter, is diagnosed with breast cancer, and in order to save her life must undergo a radical mastectomy of either one or both breasts, after which, she will be asked to choose which procedure she would prefer for reconstruction? Should she choose to use her own flesh, which is an admittedly painful procedure and often results in scarring of the area where the flesh is harvested, as well as less than perfect reconstructed breasts, or with advances in science on the rise, should she choose the pigskin? The flesh from the animal whose life would be sacrificed in an attempt to recapture what existed before the cancer took hold. The flesh that will allow for a more natural looking appearance, which also offers a faster recovery time, but comes at a drastic price. What is a vegan to do?
This is by no means the first advance in medical technology that has animals, whose genetic make-up so closely matches that of humans, relegated to a life of painful experimentation, torturous observation and ultimately death, all in the name of science with the ultimate goal being the preservation of the human species.
Those of a pig often replace human heart-valves, although a mechanical valve is an option. Heart transplants were first performed on monkeys, cat intestines have been used as suture material for centuries, and even more recently, in the care of our animal companions, pig insulin is given to those with diabetes. The question remains, how are choosing which animals to sacrifice and which to save? Who decides that the physical aesthetics of a human female are more precious than the life of a porcine female?
These questions don’t have easy answers, although I am sure many who feel it is their right to live how they choose, without a willingness to regard the consequences their choices have on the lives of others, and feel that, in spite of any other point I make, human life is far superior to all others, find it pretty cut and dry. But we must look at the deeper issues and ask the tougher questions.
My maternal grandmother had breast cancer. She underwent surgery long before I was born to remove not only the tumor, but also her entire right breast. I remember the first time I saw the jagged landscape of taut, scarred flesh that exposed her secret. Her disfigurement caused her a great deal of shame, though of course, was no fault of her own. As time passed and technology advanced I asked her if she would consider reconstruction surgery. “What would be the point?” she asked me. “This is just the way things turned out. It’s not so bad.”
But of course, this is the opposite of today’s mindset. We are seeing less and less acceptance for the way things turn out. We take less responsibility for our actions and decisions, and we use our ever-expanding knowledge as a weapon of mass destruction.
The question we need to be asking isn’t which animals we should rationalize harming, exploiting, torturing and ultimately killing; it is why we think we have the right to make the choice to begin with.