Difficult Questions

Posted by test on October 1, 2007

The other night my mother sent me a disturbing email. She had just read that Herceptin, a cancer-fighting drug she took when she had breast cancer a few years ago, is made from Chinese hamster ovaries. She had always assumed that it was a synthetic concoction. She asked me if I had known this information during her treatment, and if I had kept it from her so I wouldn’t add to the huge amount of stress and fear that she was already dealing with at the time.

I confess that I did not know anything about the drug or how it is made. And after doing some further investigating, it appears that the ovarian cells, while no doubt originally taken from hamsters at some point, are genetically reproduced in a lab without actually using the hamsters or ovaries themselves. Although I was relieved to discover that millions of hamsters are not killed for their reproductive organs, her email got me thinking: if the drug really was made from hamster ovaries and I had known it at the time, what would I have done? Would I have pointed this out to my mom, heaping guilt on top of the other painful, frightening emotions she was feeling? Would I have taken the risk that telling my mother, and her possible refusal to take the drug, could have led to her suffering and death? How could I, as her daughter, have ever lived with myself had that happened?

But on the other hand, how could I have not told her? She would have had the right to know, wouldn’t she? And what about the millions of animals who are purposely given cancer in laboratories or are otherwise used in cruel pharmaceutical tests, including for the same drug she took? Where are their rights? Aren’t their lives important? Having once been the adoptive parent of two domestic rats, I know how sensitive they are, and it’s unbearable to imagine the pain they must suffer.

Of course, we who want to protect animals and who therefore try to follow a certain code of ethics say that their lives do count, and that they should have the right to not be used, abused and exploited. But “doing the right thing” sure doesn’t seem quite so crystal clear when we’re talking about our loved ones taking a drug that quite possibly could save their lives.

My mother is the person from whom I inherited a desire to protect animals from suffering, and she seems to have inherited this trait from her mother. My mom was the brave little girl who stood up to the (big) neighborhood bully, threatening to hit him with her lunchbox when he refused to stop shooting birds with his bb gun. She is someone who refused to eat poultry after seeing a chicken slaughtered on a family farm in Michigan when she was a child. And she is someone who told my aunt, the matriarch of the family, that she could not bring her fur coat into our house one cold Christmas Eve when I was young. (You can imagine how that went over.)

My mom ended her recent email to me by saying that it must sometimes be difficult for me to sleep at night, knowing all the things I know about animal cruelty. She said that this knowledge must be, in her words, “a blessing and a curse – a blessing to know and make better choices, and a curse to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of the issues.” In some ways, I think she’s right. I’m glad I know about these things, but sometimes I think that ignorance would indeed be bliss. It’s not always easy to face the smaller ethical dilemmas, much less the bigger, life-or-death ones.

For example, the holidays are just around the corner. For many of us, ethical issues, especially concerning food, become front and center during the holiday season. Do you attend the Thanksgiving feast with the turkey carcass as the table centerpiece, or do you give up spending the day with your loved ones so you can eat dinner with like-minded, vegetarian friends? Do you go to Uncle Bob’s house to spend the holidays with him and his mounted dead deer heads on the wall, or do you skip seeing him because you just can’t stomach hearing yet another hunting story (and seeing the evidence hanging on his wall)? If you’re vegan, do you eat those buttered vegetables that your well-meaning but obviously clueless Aunt Marge specially provided for you, scraping off as much butter as possible (but no doubt eating some), in order to recognize her efforts and maintain family harmony? Or do you stay true to your beliefs and refuse to eat them?

When these big or small moral questions inevitably pop up from time to time, I think the important thing is that we do the best we can and make these decisions with compassion. That includes compassion for ourselves and each other, when there just isn’t a perfect choice to make and we are forced to choose the lesser of two (or three or four) evils.

However, we should never forget that the animals are counting on us to ask the tough questions and to stand up for them. Yes, it’s sometimes difficult to make these decisions, but what the animals go through is much, much worse. The number of people who pause to consider these issues is growing every day, and that gives me hope. I am very fortunate to work with such a group of people at ALDF. I’m also grateful that my mom, who started me on my mission to help animals, is still with us, and continues to contribute her own unique form of compassion to the world.



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