For the majority of USYD students, the most significant moral calculation we will undertake in the course of our study is whether or not to lie about the word count on our mid-semester essay.
Rosemary Mulway, however, is regularly compelled to reflect on much more serious matters. This year, her Honours year, she has embarked on a research project that requires her to treat, monitor, and kill white mice.
These mice will be born, live, and die in a research facility in order to enable the completion of her Honours thesis – a thesis which will, she hopes, allow better understanding and prevention of medical phenomena such as transplant rejection.
Up until this year, Rosemary had never had to work with live animals. But before she was even allowed to touch the mice that would be the subject of her research, she had to learn how to kill them.
“It’s a horrible experience. One of the first things that everyone who’s more experienced asks you after you’ve done the training days is: ‘Have you cried yet?’ And everyone always does.”
Rosemary says that she and her Honours peers remain uneasy about their research to this day.
“One of the methods that we use to kill the mice is to gas them with carbon dioxide so they go straight to sleep before they die. And when you do that, when you put the tube in their enclosures, you feel like a Nazi or something.”
I ask her if she thinks humans have a right to use animals as a means to our own ends. Despite having studied ethics and philosophy as an undergraduate, she is still unsure.
“It’s a question I ask myself all the time. It really depends on what position you approach it from. On the one hand, you could say that animals have rights that should never be violated, and if you think that I really don’t think you could justify what we’re doing,” she says.
“But I think most people think more along the lines of we should be trying not to make animals suffer or die unnecessarily, and that we should be doing everything we possibly can to protect their welfare while still being utilitarian about the good that can come of the research we’re doing.”
Rosemary is confident that that USYD has adequate processes in place to ensure all possible harm minimisation, with extensive administration and monitoring of animal welfare by the University’s Animal Ethics Committee. She is able, moreover, to justify to herself that harm that she does cause by remembering the potential outcomes of the type of research that she’s doing.
“It’s a constant philosophical debate that we all have, but you just have to know exactly why you’re doing it and what you’re aiming for.”
And, with many of the cornerstones of contemporary medicine – techniques such as vaccination, general anaesthetic, antibiotics, and joint replacement – having been pioneered with the use of animal experimentation, it’s difficult not to be grateful to Rosemary and her peers. At least there are some of us out there willing to assume a far greater burden – and to confront a greater challenge – than that of getting an essay under the word-count before the 5pm deadline.