Using the Products of Atrocities

by Sherry F. Colb

In my column for this week, I discuss the mixed legacy of Dr. J. Marion Sims, the father of modern gynecology, who developed a surgery to repair obstetric fistulas by experimenting on enslaved African American women.  In the column, I suggest what one might say about such experiments from a utilitarian moral perspective, and I draw an analogy between human and animal experimentation.

In this post, I want to pose the question that I did not pose in the column:  is it legitimate to utilize surgeries (and other products) that have come about through morally outrageous behavior?  In other words, should we hesitate to take advantage of a surgery that was developed in the immoral way that obstetric fistula surgery was developed?  Similarly, should we be reluctant to use the information that was gathered through immoral hypothermia experiments during the Second World War?

My first inclination is to say no, that we should not hesitate to use information that was gleaned through outrageous conduct.  Using the information does not necessarily condone the method by which such information was gathered, and we arguably compound tragedies by refusing to deploy the one good thing to come of horrific behavior.  Yet how can I say this as an ethical vegan?

Let me explain my question.  As an ethical vegan, I refuse to purchase and consume items that were derived through the exploitation and/or killing of animals.  This means that I do not consume animal flesh, dairy foods, or eggs and that I do not wear clothing made from animal skin, fur, or wool.  It also means that I avoid using body products (such as soap and shampoo) whose ingredients either came from an animal or were tested on an animal.  For whatever reason, avoiding products tested on animals has become far more mainstream than avoiding products taken directly from animals, so readers are likely familiar with the animal testing boycott.

Is there a difference between the vegan form of boycott that I have just described and a hypothetical boycott of fistula surgeries or hypothermia treatments derived from atrocities committed against enslaved women and concentration camp inmates, respectively, such that the former but not the latter is called for?  In a word, yes.

Though equal access to medical care regardless of race remains an elusive goal, our society has come to recognize--at least in theory--that human experimentation is a grave wrong, a human rights violation.  Accordingly, performing (or being the beneficiary of) a fistula repair surgery does not risk either conveying the message that slavery or experiments on enslaved people are morally permissible or providing support for further such experiments (since they are now illegal).  Purchasing the products of animal experimentation, on the other hand, does very much risk conveying the message that the consumer has no problem with animal experiments and furthermore, it provides financial rewards for companies that experiment on animals.  By the same token, the consumption of animal-based foods and the use of animal-derived clothing conveys both approval and financial support for more of the same, because animal exploitation is an ongoing, legal, and thriving atrocity.

Notwithstanding this distinction, of course, one might nonetheless choose to forgo the use of any treatment or product that came into existence as a direct result of human experimentation, but it does not appear morally mandatory to do so.  At the same time, the descendants of people who suffered and endured experimentation (whether as enslaved people or as concentration camp inmates) should perhaps be paid something like reparations to acknowledge the role of their ancestors in making treatments or products available.  Atrocities of the past certainly have an impact on the present (and in some ways, pave the way for current injustices, even though they have changed shape and form). Yet it may nonetheless be ethical for us to use the knowledge gleaned from those atrocities.

A final word should be said about medicines currently available in the United States.  For FDA approval, a medicine must be tested on animals before it is made available for human clinical trials.  (This is despite the fact that many medicines that harm various nonhuman animals are perfectly safe for humans, and vice versa, a subject expertly developed in greater depth in Animals and Public Health, by Aysha Akhtar).  As a result, a vegan who takes medication might feel that he is betraying his commitment to ethical veganism by doing so.  It is in a case like this that I would invoke the "necessity" for such medicines.  Ethical vegans spread the message of non-violence towards animals by refraining from consuming animal foods and animal clothing and animal entertainment that they do not need and replacing such foods, clothing, and entertainment with plentiful and satisfying vegan versions.  When it comes to a medicine that one needs to preserve one's health, however, different vegans will make different decisions, and most of us -- whichever decision we might make in our own personal lives -- would accept the proposition that the need for medicine is categorically and qualitatively different from the desire for dairy-based butter (especially now that there is an absolutely wonderful vegan butter available on the same web site as delicious vegan cheeses).  For similar reasons, it would be harsh to judge a person in need of a kidney for accepting one taken under suspicious circumstances, notwithstanding the wrongfulness of its retrieval.