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Vulnerable Subjects? The Case of Nonhuman Animals in Experimentation


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.

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  1. 1.

    For an exception to this general neglect, see work within the Continental tradition by Judith Butler, Jacque Derrida, Cora Diamond, Jean-Luc Nancy, Clair Palmer, Anat Pick, Stephen Thierman, and Cary Wolfe. Within bioethics, consideration of vulnerability and animals is even more limited. The as-yet-unpublished work of Angela K. Martin will make an important contribution to theorizing animal vulnerability in bioethics.

  2. 2.

    For example, Martha Fineman’s (2008) account belongs in the former category. For Fineman animals do not rate a mention; vulnerability links to the human condition. Michael Kottow’s (2004) view belongs in the latter group since he maintains that nonhuman animals are not of a kind to be regarded as properly vulnerable in the same sense as humans.

  3. 3.

    See, for instance, Robert Garner’s (2013) book or Sue Donaldson and Will Kymlicka’s (2011) book. In this context, the contribution of Kymlicka is particularly telling; Kymlicka is a respected mainstream political philosopher who has only recently turned his attention to developing arguments regarding animals in the political community.

  4. 4.

    Animal welfare is defined as “an animal’s quality of life based on an assessment of an animal’s physical and psychological state as an indication of how the animal is coping with the ongoing situation as well as a judgment about how the animal feels.” Animal well-being is defined as “an animal’s present state with regard to its relationship with all aspects of its environment, both internal and external. It implies a positive mental state, successful biological function, positive experiences and freedom from adverse conditions” (National Health and Medical Research Council 2004, 3).

  5. 5.

    Work by Forsman and by Hagelin and colleagues (discussed in Rose 2012) investigating AECs in Sweden showed that “Refinement” of procedures was the focus of discussions (Forsman) and of any modifications to protocols (Hagelin et al.).

  6. 6.

    In their research Schuppli and Fraser (2007) describe a community-based member of an AEC who deemed it important to resign after six years so that a lay perspective could be maintained. Presumably this individual was concerned that she would become too accustomed to research and no longer be able to offer an outsider’s view.

  7. 7.

    The question of how AECs function has not received significant research attention (Rose 2012). However, work by Schuppli and Fraser (2007) supports the claim that the decisions of AECs may be skewed toward the views of scientific and institutional members rather than community ones. Jessica Gröling’s (2013) research also supports this view.

  8. 8.

    In the context of biomedical research generally, Geller et al. express a concern that a culture of compliance and rule-following inadequately prepares researchers for their practice. One of the participants in their empirical research notes that “regulations cannot possibly cover every situation, and it is in the areas that regulations do not reach where ethical problems often arise” (Geller et al. 2010, 1300).


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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.

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Correspondence to Jane Johnson.

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Johnson, J. Vulnerable Subjects? The Case of Nonhuman Animals in Experimentation. Bioethical Inquiry 10, 497–504 (2013).

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  • Animal ethics
  • Vulnerability
  • Animal ethics committees
  • Animal experimentation