Ask the Expert: Animal Experiments

Can we cause an animal to suffer to save a human life?

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Question: I am a student in biomedical sciences. I would like to ask you what position Judaism takes to animal experiments? Personally I have problems with it.
--V. Draparta, The Netherlands

Answer:
I'm with you, V. Animal testing makes me anxious, too, and Jewish law hasn't ignored it.

There's a biblical commandment that restricts Jews from causing animals unnecessary pain. This is called tzaar baalei hayim, and applies mainly to an animal's living and working conditions . The precept of tzaar baalei hayim comes from a verse in Exodus, "When you see the ass of your enemy lying under its burden and would refrain from raising it, you must nevertheless raise it with him." (23:5) This means that if someone has overloaded his working animal, even if he's content to have the animal suffer under the weight, you have to go over and unburden the animal.

The Babylonian Talmud (Bava Metzia 33a-b) uses this to begin a discussion on how animals should be treated, focusing mainly on working animals, such as oxen and mules. Later rabbinic authorities have extended the concept of tzaar baalei hayim to include decent living conditions and food for every creature. (See Igg'rot Moshe, Even haEzer 4:92.)

However, in Jewish law, human life always takes precedent over animal life. The mitzvah of pikuah nefesh, or saving a life, requires that a Jew do everything possible--with the exception of murder, idol worship, and prohibited sexual acts--in order to prevent a person from dying. As a result, Judaism sanctions animal testing that could lead to life saving medicines, vaccines, and other treatments.

Additionally, medical experimentation that is done in order to train medical personnel is allowed, under the condition that it is undertaken only when directly related to the development of a specific skill necessary for the fulfillment of the specific student's professional goals. Experimenting on an animal purely for the satisfaction of intellectual curiosity is prohibited. 

Some rabbinic authorities hold that it is acceptable to cause pain to animals for financial gain, but there is a significant segment of halakhic discourse that only sanctions causing pain to animals for medical purposes. In Israel, all animal testing for cosmetic and cleaning products was outlawed in 2007.  

Personally, I wish Jewish law was a little more proactive in the way it mandates care for animals. But I've decided to avoid products and labs where I think animals are being mistreated, even though halakha doesn't require me to do so. I think it's okay to bring my own sense of morality into play along with Jewish law.