The Vegetarians-Gap

Fifty-seven percent of EU citizens are opposed to animal use in medical research. At the same time, less than 10% are ready to abstain from eating meat. How does that fit? An attempt at explaining the incongruence.


Wurstbrot. Worth a human life?

When we ask how far we can go imposing on animals, the question is mostly concerned with drawing a line somewhere. After all, it is impossible to completely refrain from harming animals in our daily life: every time we wash, we kill mites living on our skin, every time a field is plowed, worms and rodents die. The question which kinds of animal suffering are justifiable and which are not is therefore inescapable. Most of us make huge differences with regards to species. Few if any of us are emotionally distraught over flies ending their lives on the windshield of our car – but most would feel rather differently running over a dog with the same vehicle. Direct benefit to humans also seems to play a decisive role. Most people would not hesitate to shoot a lion attacking another person. But killing the same lion to turn his furhim into a bedroom carpet is shunned by most.

There are no clear, unmitigable borderlines when differentiating between species, or between different kinds of benefits resulting in animal suffering. Naturally, then, different people draw the line at different points. Thus, all kinds of positions can be found in the debate on animal research, including extreme stances – in both directions.

Surprisingly often, though, impossibly paradoxical positions are the result. I frequently run into people whom one would call a “Wurstbrot,” or sausage sandwich. These are the people who eat their Wurstbrot while giving a harangue against animal research. These people would like to prohibit using mice in ALS, Alzheimer’s and cancer research – the sooner, the better. The goal of this research is to save human lives, yet at the same time, these people are not even ready to do without eating a juicy steak once in a while. Because they like the taste better than tofu schnitzel. They consider it unbearably cruel to perform heart operations in sheep – operations that allow children a life without suffering – but they wear cow leather because it feels nice.

You should think that this entirely absurd prioritization is found in no more than a few isolated cases, such as in the deepest, darkest crevices of obscure online boards. Unfortunately, that is far from true.

In 2006, a survey by the EU Commission yielded that 57% of EU citizens considered animal research intended for the development of new drugs and treatments unacceptable. To be completely clear here: the survey explicitly referred to medical research, not testing for cosmetic or household products. At the same time, less than 10% identified as vegetarians or vegans (in Germany, the figures vary between 2 and 9%, according to wikipedia). That means, roughly 50% of our citizens are Wurstbrots. In effect, their ethical compass estimates culinary delights as more valuable than not only one, but many human lives. How on earth does anybody arrive at such a value system?

The EU Commission’s survey provides an important hint: 85% of the participants said they got their information on the topic mainly from animal protection organizations. As we know, some of these organizations go so far as claiming that animal research has never resulted and will never result in any medical advances. A close relative is the claim that all important insights from animal experiments could have also been made with animal-free alternative methods. If you buy into these false statements, then obviously a steak is more valuable to you than medical research done on animals – since the latter has no value at all, not even culinary.

Secondly, the stress experimental animals are under is often misrepresented by these organizations. They use false information to tag images, they show images of obsolete methods from other countries, they suggest individual cases with exceptional medical circumstances to be the norm, and they keep quiet about standard measures to minimize animal suffering. If I falsely assume that laboratory mice undergo unimaginable suffering, while the pig that provides my schnitzel is killed quickly and painlessly, this will obviously influence my ethical assessment.

The third reason is all too human. Our moral standards are raised when we are not directly linked or connected to the topic of discussion. For instance, if one never experienced severe illness in the family, one might just state in a letter to a newspaper editor, that we already have sufficient drugs and treatments and might as well stop medical research altogether. One’s stance on animal research can change abruptly, however, only if one’s own life is at stake. Artist Teva Harrison lived through such a change of mind and courageously shared her experience with the public.

If you eat meat, you know that for every sausage you buy an animal dies. And if you did not agree with this reality, then you would have to make do without eating meat. Animal research, like research in general, is perceived to be carried out by remote scientists, and the effects of this research seem to have no direct impact on ourselves. Of course, that is an illusion. Not only do seriously ill patients benefit, but all of us profit from animal research. Those of us who have not died from polio at an early age. Those who have not lost limb or life to a small scratch that became infected.

It is also in the nature of such questions that psychological context plays a role. If the topic of the survey is science and technology, suddenly only 37% of the respondents express opposition to animal research and only 18% oppose to experiments on mice. But, even these figures indicate a ‘vegetarians-gap’ of at least eight percent of the population.

What to learn from this is obvious. We cannot reproach people for buying into false information if we don’t provide better. Why do I, as a scientist, have to make use of animal experiments for my specific line of investigation? Which animal experiments are carried out at my institute, and how great is the resulting stress for the animals? When there is a medicinal discovery, e.g. a new drug, usually it is only the last step in a long history of research that is communicated to the press: how it works in patients. What role did animal research play on the way to get there?

As scientists, it is our obligation to inform the public about these questions. Every press contact, every private conversation about my research gives me an opportunity to do just that. It only takes me five minutes to write an e-mail to my board or my dean asking them to publish a detailed statement on animal research on my institute’s website, and to offer them this link as guidance. And if that is not enough for me, I can still become involved in Pro-Test Deutschland.