Journal of Bioethical Inquiry

, Volume 10, Issue 4, pp 497–504 | Cite as

Vulnerable Subjects? The Case of Nonhuman Animals in Experimentation

  • Jane Johnson
Original Research


The concept of vulnerability is deployed in bioethics to, amongst other things, identify and remedy harms to participants in research, yet although nonhuman animals in experimentation seem intuitively to be vulnerable, this concept and its attendant protections are rarely applied to research animals. I want to argue, however, that this concept is applicable to nonhuman animals and that a new taxonomy of vulnerability developed in the context of human bioethics can be applied to research animals. This taxonomy does useful explanatory work, helping to pinpoint the limitations of the 3Rs/welfare approach currently adopted in the context of animal experimentation. On this account, the 3Rs/welfare approach fails to deliver for nonhuman animals in experimentation because it effectively addresses only one element of their vulnerability (inherent) and paradoxically through the institution of Animal Ethics Committees intended to protect experimental animals in fact generates new vulnerabilities that exacerbate their already precarious situation.


Animal ethics Vulnerability Animal ethics committees Animal experimentation 



This research was supported by a Macquarie University Research Fellowship. A version of this paper was presented at the “Minding Animals Conference” in Utrecht in 2012. Wendy Rogers and Angela K. Martin provided invaluable feedback on an earlier draft of this paper, as did the anonymous reviewers for the Journal of Bioethical Inquiry.


  1. Beauchamp, T.L., H.R. Ferdowsian, and J.P. Gluck. 2012. Where are we in the justification of research involving chimpanzees? Kennedy Institute of Ethics Journal 22(3): 211–242.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bryant, T.L. 2007. Similarity of difference as a basis for justice: Must animals be like humans to be legally protected from humans? Law and Contemporary Problems 70: 207–254.Google Scholar
  3. Donaldson, S., and W. Kymlicka. 2011. Zoopolis: A political theory of animal rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  4. Fineman, M.A. 2008. The vulnerable subject: Anchoring equality in the human condition. Yale Journal of Law and Feminism 20: 1–23.Google Scholar
  5. Garner, R. 2013. A theory of justice for animals: Animal rights in a nonideal world. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Geller, G., A. Boyce, D.E. Ford, and J. Sugarman. 2010. Beyond “compliance”: The role of institutional culture in promoting research integrity. Academic Medicine 85(8): 1296–1302.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Gröling, J. 2013. University ethical review committees and the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act: Using the Freedom of Information Act as a research tool. In Proceedings of the conference Critical Perspectives on Animals in Society, ed. C. Calvert and J. Gröling, 49–62. Exeter: CPAS convenors, editors, and individual named contributors.
  8. Hadley, J. 2012. Telling it like it is: A proposal to improve transparency in biomedical research. Between the Species 15(1): 103–126.Google Scholar
  9. Harvey, J. 2007. Moral solidarity and empathetic understanding: The moral value and scope of the relationship. Journal of Social Philosophy 38(1): 22–37.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Kottow, M.H. 2004. Vulnerability: What kind of principle is it? Medicine, Health Care, and Philosophy 7(3): 281–287.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Mackenzie, C., W. Rogers, and S. Dodds. 2013. Introduction: What is vulnerability and why should it matter for moral theory? In Vulnerability: New essays in ethics and feminist philosophy, ed. C. Mackenzie, W. Rogers, and S. Dodds. New York: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  12. National Health and Medical Research Council. 2004. Australian code of practice for the care and use of animals for scientific purposes, 7th edition. Canberra: Australian Government.
  13. Pearson, N. 2004. When welfare is a curse. The Age, April 23.
  14. Rogers, W., C. Mackenzie, and S. Dodds. 2012. Why bioethics needs a theory of vulnerability. International Journal of Feminist Approaches to Bioethics 5(2): 11–38.Google Scholar
  15. Rose, M. 2011. Challenges to the development and implementation of public policies to achieve animal welfare outcomes. Animals 1(1): 69–82.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Rose, M. 2012. Ethical review of the use of animals in research: A reflection on the journey. ALTEX Proceedings 1(12): 281–288.Google Scholar
  17. Russell, D. 2012. Why animal ethics committees don’t work. Between the Species 15(1): 127–142.Google Scholar
  18. Russell, W.M.S., and R.L. Burch. 1959. The principles of humane experimental technique. London: Methuen.Google Scholar
  19. Satz, A.B. 2009. Animals as vulnerable subjects: Beyond interest-convergence, hierarchy, and property. Animal Law 16(2): 65–122.Google Scholar
  20. Schuppli, C.A., and D. Fraser. 2007. Factors influencing the effectiveness of research ethics committees. Journal of Medical Ethics 33(5): 294–301.PubMedCrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Thierman, S. 2011. The vulnerability of other animals. Journal for Critical Animal Studies 9(1): 182–208.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of PhilosophyW6A Macquarie UniversityNorth RydeAustralia

Personalised recommendations