THE day that a living, feeling being is called a "patented invention" should be a sad one. Start crying.
Last week the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office issued a patent for a new form of genetically-altered mouse created by Harvard Professor of Genetics Phillip Leder '56. The mutant mouse develops cancer at an extremely high rate and supposedly will be of great help to medical researchers.
Even if this enthusiastic claim is true, it is not reason enough to justify last week's patent. The action of the Patent Office in accepting Harvard's application sets a horrible precedent and shows a complete lack of consideration for the sanctity of life--even if that life doesn't happen to be human.
The patent raises the issue of whether our uniqueness as a species allows us to do as we please with animals that are used in research. The answer is no. Animals feel pain exactly as we do, and an abundance of intelligence or lack thereof has no bearing on the reality of pain, disease, suffering or death.
Scientific researchers do not use the mentally retarded as test subjects in experiments. Why? Severely mentally retarded people are incapable of analytical thought. Yet something stops us from considering them as valid research subjects. We seem to feel that there is something inherent in being human that makes us more "worthy" of life than the other species on Earth.
A prominent author and animal rights activist, Peter Singer, calls this bias `speciesism' and maintains that it is a form of prejudice no less reprehensible than racism or sexism. This is a fact which we should acknowledge, as speciesism is responsible for the suffering and death of more than 60 million animals every year through research alone.
No one can dispute that the use of animals in medical research has contributed to significant advances in treatments for human diseases. However, it should also be recognized that certain forms of animal research could easily be replaced by cell and bacterial culture methods. The risk in transferring results obtained from animal experiments to actual human cases should also be recognized.
The New England Anti-Vivisection Society (NEAVS) of Boston states that "recent, well-publicized drug disasters document the inevitable extrapolation risks inherent in using animals to study human health and disease" and goes on to list several such incidents.
Thalidomide, for instance, was extensively tested, using more than 30,000 animals in a period of three years. The results allowed the drug to be considered safe for humans, yet it was found to cause grave deformities in the babies whose mothers took the drug during pregnancy. Diethyl Stilbesterol (DES) also was tested on animals but has been found to cause vaginal and testicular cancer in the offspring of pregnant women. Oraflex, prescribed for arthritis sufferers, was animal-tested and considered safe until more than 150 people who used it died of kidney disease.
In all, the use of animal experiments to determine the course of human medicine is unreliable. Penicillin is toxic to guinea pigs, while aspirin is poisonous to cats. If these substances had been tested on animals, they may never have made it to market.
Given these facts, it becomes difficult to trust the conclusions of Professor Leder's research. An altered mouse is still a mouse--it cannot get leukemia from benzene, while humans can. Why then should anyone believe that cancer research results received from mice should apply to humans?
However, we should not stop using unwilling animals in our experiments just because the results are unreliable, but because it is a horrendous practice. It is high time we extended our basic moral concerns to the other billions of inhabitants on this Earth.