Making Sense of Animal Research and Ourselves: The Importance of Vulnerability

In the second of our Animals in Medicine series, Renelle McGlacken invites us to think about the moral legitimacy of animal research through the lens of vulnerability.

The moral legitimacy of animal research can be made sense of in different ways. One prevailing approach is via a utilitarian and anthropocentric ‘harm-benefit analysis,’ the framework which structures both UK and EU ethical reviews of scientific animal use. As the name suggests, this analysis aims to weigh the (largely non-human animal) harms involved in a study against its expected (largely human) benefits. Correspondingly, the dominant discourse around animal research often pits the lives of humans against research animals, asking whom we value more and to whom we have greater ethical obligations.

A rat in a person's hand

In my own study of societal relations with animal research in the UK, I have found that understandings of the ‘necessity’ of such research are often grounded in lived experiences of vulnerability, particularly experiences of ill health and bereavement. Beneficial clinical interventions, whether experienced personally or by those around us, can invest the biomedical uses of animals with a sense of necessity: as something that might be deemed unpleasant and regretful, but nevertheless currently unavoidable. Setting up animal research as key to mitigating human vulnerability to injury, illness, and disease, what some scholars term our ‘inherent vulnerability’ (Dodds 2007), can thus frame opposition to such uses of animals as undermining or jeopardising responsibilities to care for current and future patients.

Following this thread, experiencing the vulnerabilities of others may bring our own vulnerabilities to the fore, and not only in terms of our biological susceptibilities. We are also vulnerable to losing who we are when we lose those with whom we make ourselves. As Butler (2004, 22) puts it, ‘I think I have lost ‘you’ only to discover that ‘I’ have gone missing as well’. In this way, bereavement may impact not only the way we understand our own mortality, but also how we understand our lived identity. Yet, research and interventions which aim at preventing and mitigating such vulnerabilities and loss are caught up with the problem of animal use. Therefore, perhaps some of the regret, and even grief, around judgments of a current ‘need’ for biomedical animal use are also related to a disorienting recognition of who ‘we’ are if we can accept this blunt exchange of life. What does this mean for how we understand ourselves and what we mean by being ‘well’?

Finally, such awareness of our own inherent vulnerabilities can also draw us closer to those we share with others across species boundaries. As Hird (2013, 115) suggests, ‘An ethics of vulnerability draws our attention to the extended others—human and non-human—affected by our actions.’ In my research, lived experience of illness and bereavement not only led some people to place a necessity in using animals to benefit human health, but could also reaffirm the value of all life, further problematising the trade-off between human and non-human animals.

Whilst achieving the full replacement of animals in scientific research is neither a simple nor short-term activity, concerns around how we manage our inherent vulnerabilities while caring for those of other animals remain crucial to reckon with. Overall, that the dependency on, or complicity in, animal research may be accompanied by deep discomfort, points to the unfairness of playing bodily vulnerabilities against one another. In this case, perhaps we would do better to sit more readily with the discontent expressed towards a human medicine said to depend upon animal lives, rather than expecting a celebration of exclusionary forms of care when they benefit ‘us.’

About the author:

Renelle McGlacken is a social scientist interested in the socio-ethical dimensions of human-animal relations, particularly within science and medicine. This blog post is based on her PhD study of UK societal relations with animal research, which analysed writing from the Mass Observation Project, a national life-writing project, on the topic. She tweets @renelle_mc.


Butler, J. (2004), Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence (2004), London/New York: Verso.

Dodds, S. (2007), ‘Depending on care: Recognition of vulnerability and the social contribution of care provision.’ Bioethics, vol. 21, 2007, pp. 500–510.

Hird, M.J. (2013), ‘Waste, landfills, and an environmental ethic of vulnerability.’ Ethics and the Environment, 18, pp. 105–124.

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