Vivisection (from Latin vivus, meaning 'alive', and sectio, meaning 'cutting') is surgery conducted for experimental purposes on a living organism, typically animals with a central nervous system, to view living internal structure. The word is, more broadly, used as a pejorative catch-all term for experimentation on live animals by organizations opposed to animal experimentation but rarely used by practicing scientists. Human vivisection has been perpetrated as a form of torture.
Research requiring vivisection techniques that cannot be met through other means is often subject to an external ethics review in conception and implementation, and in many jurisdictions use of anesthesia is legally mandated for any surgery likely to cause pain to any vertebrate.
In the U.S., the Animal Welfare Act explicitly requires that any procedure that may cause pain use "tranquilizers, analgesics, and anesthetics", with exceptions when "scientifically necessary". The act does not define "scientific necessity" or regulate specific scientific procedures, but approval or rejection of individual techniques in each federally funded lab is determined on a case-by-case basis by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee, which contains at least one veterinarian, one scientist, one non-scientist, and one other individual from outside the university.
In the U.K., any experiment involving vivisection must be licensed by the Home Secretary. The Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 "expressly directs that, in determining whether to grant a licence for an experimental project, 'the Secretary of State shall weigh the likely adverse effects on the animals concerned against the benefit likely to accrue.'"
In Australia, the Code of Practice "requires that all experiments must be approved by an Animal Experimentation Ethics Committee" that includes a "person with an interest in animal welfare who is not employed by the institution conducting the experiment, and an additional independent person not involved in animal experimentation."
Anti-vivisectionists have played roles in the emergence of the animal welfare and animal rights movements, arguing that animals and humans have the same natural rights as living creatures, and that it is inherently immoral to inflict pain or injury on another living creature, regardless of the purpose or potential benefit to mankind.
Vivisection and anti-vivisection in the 19th century
At the turn of the 19th Century, medicine was undergoing a transformation. The emergence of hospitals and the development of more advanced medical tools such as the stethoscope are but a few of the changes in the medical field. There was also an increased recognition that medical practices needed to be improved, as many of the current therapeutics were based on unproven, traditional theories that may or may not have helped the patient recover. The demand for more effective treatment shifted emphasis to research with the goal of understanding disease mechanisms and anatomy. This shift had a few effects, one of which was patient experimentation become more prevalent, leading to some moral questions about what was acceptable in clinical trials and what was not. An easy solution to the moral problem was to use animals in vivisection experiments, so as not to endanger human patients. This, however, had its own set of moral obstacles, leading to the anti-vivisection movement.
François Magendie (1783–1855)
One polarizing figure in the anti-vivisection movement was François Magendie. Magendie was a physiologist at the Académie Royale de Médecine in France, established in the first half of the 19th century. Magendie made several groundbreaking medical discoveries, but was far more aggressive than some of his other contemporaries with his use of animal experimentation. For example, the discovery of the different functionalities of dorsal and ventral spinal nerve roots was achieved by both Magendie, as well as a Scottish anatomist named Charles Bell. Bell used an unconscious rabbit because of "the protracted cruelty of the dissection", which caused him to miss that the dorsal roots were also responsible for sensory information. Magendie, on the other hand, used conscious, six-week-old puppies for his own experiments. While Magendie's approach was more infringement on what we would now call today animal rights, both Bell and Magendie used the same justification for vivisection: the cost of animal lives and experimentation was well worth it for the benefit of humanity.
Many viewed Magendie's work as cruel, and unnecessarily torturous. One note is that Magendie carried out many of his experiments before the advent of anesthesia, but even after ether's discovery, it was not used in any of his experiments or classes. Even during the period before anesthesia, other physiologists expressed their disgust with how he conducted his work. One such visiting American physiologist describes the animals as "victims" and the apparent sadism that Magendie displayed when teaching his classes. The cruelty in such experiments actually even led to Magendie's role as an important figure in animal rights legislation. He was so despised in Britain that his experiments were cited in the drafting of the Cruel Treatment of Cattle Act of 1822 and the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876.
David Ferrier and the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876
The Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876 in Britain determined that one could only conduct vivisection on animals with the appropriate license from the state, and that the work the physiologist was doing had to be original and absolutely necessary. The stage was set for such legislation by physiologist David Ferrier. Ferrier was a pioneer in understanding the brain and used animals to show that the certain locales of the brain corresponded to bodily movement elsewhere in the body in 1873. He put these animals to sleep, and caused them to move unconsciously with a probe. Ferrier was successful, but many decried his use of animals in his experiments. Some of these arguments, interestingly, came from a religious standpoint. Some were concerned that Ferrier's experiments would separate God from the mind of man in the name of science. Some of the anti-vivisection movement in England had its roots in Evangelicalism and Quakerism. These religions already had a distrust for science, only intensified by the recent publishing of Darwins' Theory of Evolution in 1859.
Neither side was pleased with how the Cruelty to Animals Act of 1876 was passed. The scientific community felt as though they the government was restricting their ability to compete with the quickly advancing France and Germany with new regulations. The anti-vivisection movement was also unhappy, but because they believed that it was a concession to scientists for allowing vivisection to continue at all. Ferrier would continue to vex the anti-vivisection movement in Britain with his experiments when he had a debate with his German opponent, Friedrich Goltz. They would effectively enter the vivisection arena, with Ferrier presenting a monkey, and Goltz presenting a dog, both of which had already been operated on. Ferrier won the debate, but did not have a license, leading the anti-vivisection movement to sue him in 1881. Ferrier was not found guilty, as his assistant was the one operating, and his assistant did have a license. Ferrier and his practices gained public support, leaving the anti-vivisection movement scrambling. They made the moral argument that given recent developments, scientists would venture into more extreme practices to operating on "the cripple, the mute, the idiot, the convict, the pauper, to enhance the “interest” of [the physiologist's] experiments".
It is possible that human vivisection was practiced by some Greek anatomists in Alexandria in the 3rd century BC. Celsus in De Medicina and the early-Christian writer Tertullian state that Herophilos of Alexandria vivisected at least 600 live prisoners.
Unit 731, a biological and chemical warfare research and development unit of the Imperial Japanese Army, undertook lethal human experimentation during the Second Sino-Japanese War (1937–1945). In Mindanao, Moro Muslim prisoners of war were subjected to various forms of vivisection by the Japanese, in many cases without anesthesia.
Vivisection without anesthesia was an execution method employed by the Khmer Rouge at the Tuol Sleng prison. Only seven people survived the four-year run of the prison before its liberation by the Vietnamese army in January 1979.
- American Anti-Vivisection Society
- Animal testing regulations
- Experimentation on prisoners, including vivisection
- History of animal testing
- Human subject research
- Intrinsic value (animal ethics)
- Lingchi, an execution method in Imperial China
- New England Anti-Vivisection Society
- Speaking of Research
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