Vivisection used to mean “live dissection,” or cutting an animal while still alive. Vivi means “live” and “section” means to cut. Rene Descartes did so without anesthetics. The Oxford Concise Dictionary also defines vivisection as the “painful treatment of living animals for purposes of scientific research.” In other words, the term has expanded in meaning to encompass virtually all harmful or invasive uses of animals in laboratories. Tom Regan, in The Case for Animal Rights, (p. 363) objects to the use of the term vivisection since it means “live dissection.” Later, Regan issued a speech called “The War on Vivisection,” which is linked to from my main page, although he never gave a reason for the switch from disapproving of this term. Perhaps I can give a reason in this blog entry. Do we need to hesitate to use this term, instead opting for the more neutral “animal experimentation”? Not all animal experiments are contrary to the principles of animal liberation, such as experimenting with a poodle to find her optimum diet. Even “invasive animal experiments” is too wordy, and means the same as vivisection. Vivisectionists (those who advocate vivisection; a vivisector is someone who performs vivisection) do not like the term “vivisection” because they consider it inflammatory to associate all of their activities with the root meaning of live dissection. However, not only do vivisectors sometimes do live dissections, but they are proposing that this word be dismissed because it departs from its root meaning, set out above. Yet if we upheld this practice in general, we would need to jettison the word “capital” because it originally referred to heads of cattle (cap means “head” in this context). Perhaps the vivisectionists are embarrassed that the term has come to be associated with pain, or more inclusively, we might say suffering or harm. That is too bad. The experiments in question inherently cause harm. Even animals being regularly deprived of fresh air, sunlight, natural surroundings, decent food, friendship or love, amusements, exercise, as well as safety are due to laboratory confinement. This is literal harm, not just a metaphor. Additionally, animals are subject to surgery without anesthetics, drowning, cramping, crowding, freezing, burning, crushing, car-crashing, starvation, induced aggression or passivity, compression, irradiation, weapons targeting, disease infections, and so much more. That is vivisection in the proper dictionary sense. Requests that we pussy-foot around so as not to injure vivisectionists’ delicate feelings would be a form of speciesist repression, and a valorization of ignoring the suffering of animals just to make things pleasant for humans. There is no good reason, I conclude, to abstain from the use of the term “vivisection” and associated terms, although I would argue that there are any number of excellent reasons to abstain from vivisection itself. Let vivisectors be held accountable for the harms they cause, including through the deliberate use of appropriate terminology.
My first two entries in my Animal Ethics series have been about the appropriate use of terms. I will now launch into more theoretical questions. Next entry will be: are we facing a crisis in animal ethics?
Regan, Tom. 1983. The Case for Animal Rights. Los Angeles: University of California Press.