Ethical decisions concerning animal biotechnology: what is the role of animal welfare science?
Scientists recently attracted considerable public attention when they presented a featherless chicken tailored for production in hot climates. Although this chicken was actually the result of traditional breeding, it is an example of what might be achieved if targeted gene manipulation techniques become widely applied in agriculture. Through interfering directly with an animal's genome, scientists hope to be able to create animals with exactly the desired characteristics, such as lean meat or temperature tolerance. Industry and geneticists may be enthusiastic about the possibility of producing pork with polyunsaturated fatty acids or high-yielding dairy cows to be kept in tropical climates, but the European public often reacts with alarm at these prospects. A consistent pattern of the surveys conducted among members of the European public is that, of all of the potential biotechnology applications, those involving animals are the ones that people find the least acceptable. People fear a development of techniques that may get out of control, and they also have ethical concerns about humans' right to 'play God' and about the welfare of the animals involved. All of these aspects seem to be relevant for an ethical discussion about animal biotechnology. Animal welfare scientists can play an important role by providing information for an animal welfare risk assessment at an early stage of research projects that involve the genetic modification of animals, and also by helping to develop guidelines for the housing and husbandry of animals with special needs. On the other hand, ethical problems remain that lie outside the area of science. In this paper we discuss the role of animal welfare science in aiding ethics decisions about animal biotechnology. We give a summary of the different ethical concerns expressed by ethicists and by the general public. Focusing on one of them, animal welfare, we give an introduction to the animal welfare implications of recent developments in reproductive and gene technologies. The importance of animal welfare aspects is discussed in relation to other ethical concerns about animal biotechnology.
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