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Hard Choices by Harry Mather, Vegan Views 86 (Autumn 2000)

In a recently debated case, the separation of conjoined twins means condemning one of them to death in the hope of saving the life of the other. If no surgery is done, both will die. The question is: is it right to condemn one person to die in order that the other can live? And how will the survivor feel (if she does survive) when she grows up and finds her sister was killed so that she could live, even though this was not the wish of her parents.

Basically the question is: is it right to kill one person in order to save the life of another? it could be argued Yes in certain circumstances, especially if the sacrificed person gives consent, but there must be at least many circumstances when the answer would be a firm No, especially if the survivor is using superior force or cunning to assert their right. My point is not to argue the dilemma with humans but to contrast it with a view taken when the question concerns other animals. Here we find quite an opposite point of view. The general practice is that it is almost a duty of the other animals to give up their lives and to suffer painful experiments for the benefit of the humans because they are considered inferior to us. (But is not the less viable twin considered inferior to the stronger one?) Many people would at least draw the line with some animals such as companion animals. Would you allow your pet dog or cat to be experimented on to find a cure for the disease that is threatening your life? Are you concerned if pet cats are stolen and sold to animal laboratories? Labs. would in any case prefer specially bred cats, but does that make a difference, just because it was a stranger and not one you had given love to? Is it more right to experiment on mice that we may not feel any sympathy for than on dogs or apes which are more congenial to us?

The problem of the conjoined twins, seems more difficult. Harm would be done whatever course is taken. Whether an operation is made or nothing is done, there will be a death. But the problem of animal experimentation is clearer. Experiments are made in order to research into possible cures. It is necessary to sacrifice many animals to attempt to find some cure for an ailment. How many mice can be sacrificed to save one human? Some would say an infinite number but the question is never put that way. In the case of twins there are only two options, to operate or not. In the case of human patients there could be many alternatives, e.g. to find cures without sacrificing animals, by cell culture, by epidemiological studies, by simpler remedies and by prevention of diseases through education or improving diet or environment (preventing pollution, improving social conditions, etc.)

The vegetarian diet has been shown by ordinary medical research to be effective in reducing the incidence of cancer, heart disease and other ailments. And the vegan diet is even more beneficial than the diet that includes eggs and dairy products.

Unfortunately, changing to a vegan diet has two problems. One is that individual people have to change their eating habits, which may be easy for some but seems an almost impossible task for many. Some would rather die than to give up meat and milk, just as some suffering from lung cancer would rather die that give up tobacco. I often hear people intelligent enough to be considered as models to be followed, talk as though milk were a normal part of adult human diet, when it is plain that all other mammals are weaned off milk in "babyhood". Someone speaking for the British Nutritional Foundation recently stated that meat is a necessary part of diet and he has not been publicly exposed as an idiot for overlooking the fact that some 10% of people in this country never touch the stuff, that an even greater proportion of the population of India are vegetarian, that people have climbed Mt. Everest or swum the channel on a veggie diet. Until such formers of opinion start speaking the truth as opposed to responding to their prejudices or their paymasters, progress will be a great struggle. In another hotly debated case, a couple who had a child with a life-threatening disease were told that an implantation of cells from a healthy sibling would probably save that child's life. They then produced a number of embryos until one of these proved to be healthy. That one was brought to maturity and cells from the umbilical cord were implanted into the first child to save its life. The unwanted embryos were now not needed. In this particular case where a life has been saved or at least greatly improved, much could be said in favour of the procedure. The problem remains that it opens the possibility that other people may wish to produce children with characteristics they would like their children to have. They may want to determine the sex, skin colour or colour of eyes of their offspring. This could have dire consequences and reopen the question of Eugenics: whether we have the right to decide what our children should be like, whether they have a right to life in spite of what we view as disabilities or unwanted appearance.

In the case where cloning produced Dolly the Sheep, there had been about 140 failures before a successful experimental animal was achieved. Many forms of genetic manipulation produce many, often hideous, failures during their trials. How could these mistakes be tolerated if human beings are involved? Animal experiments are said to be conducted in order to avoid experiments on humans, but we are coming dangerously close to experimenting on humans. Scientific curiosity must have its limits and it is time for ethical concerns to be raised and given a wide debate. The general public is become increasingly aware and sometimes very concerned about these developments and are also often questioning whether the scientists involved are presenting the full facts to enable a constructive debate to take place. Some will even question whether experimenters are more eager to advance their careers and be first in the field, than they are to take on the ethical responsibility for their actions. This whole debate must surely take on a greater importance as time goes on.

The other problem we have to contend with is that our agriculture and our social structure are based on meat and dairy production. Farmers are already suffering from a falling demand for beef As a consequence of the BSE crisis exports have been greatly reduced. Exports of pigs have also been hit. Farmers expect the Government to come to their support somehow. Meanwhile demand for organic foods is rising rapidly but few are reluctant to change over and the Government is slow to provide support for such changes. The Countryside Alliance is a powerful well-funded body which is exploiting the discontent of small farmers and rural workers in order to further their aim of preserving their right to hunt wild animals and to prevent the common people from roaming over the open countryside.

The problem is that there is a whole social structure that has to change before a health giving diet can be produced in this country, but changing to a plant based diet will also improve the aspect of the countryside - an end to the huge monstrous fields and a return to more hedges and trees; an end to stinking sheds of caged and cramped birds or beasts, an end to muddy fields for pigs and a return to making room for more wildlife and flowers. A return to more orchards flowering in spring and heavy with colourful fruit in summer and autumn - replanting trees that were so callously grubbed up decades ago. Let us still see cows, pigs, sheep and hens but let them live in the freedom of sanctuaries and parks without constant manipulation by humans.

It may sound like a dream but everyone who turns to veganism is helping to make that dream a reality. We may find it difficult to change the world and to persuade others to accept our point of view, even when we find that our arguments are unassailable, but there is one thing that we have a firm control over and that is the way we live our own lives and even if we are affected by our environment and the people around us, we can continue to work towards our goal and prove our case by our own example.

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Cross-reference: Medical Matters