Death Row Inmates in Clinical Trials: The Benefits of Human vs. Non-Human Subjects

Updated on March 11, 2017

The Prison Laboratory

The Benefits of Human Subjects in Clinical Trials

Humans have been submitting to clinical trials for years with successful outcomes. Human subjects are necessary to show the safety of unproven medical therapies. Non-human animals (hereafter referred to as “animals”) are genetically and physiologically different than humans. Scientists and doctors recognize that while animals are biologically like human beings, they are not identical. There is empirical evidence showing that animal “models” are not accurate and cannot be relied upon for safety testing and disease research, therefore medical experimentation on humans is more effective in clinical trials toward the discovery of cures for human diseases than medical experimentation on animals.

The high cost of death row appeals and compounded costs to house inmates on taxpayer dollars can be offset by funding from pharmaceutical companies, while death row inmates can repay society for their heinous crimes by voluntarily submitting to humane experimentation, sparing the lives of innocent animals who are contradistinctive clinical subjects.

Non-Human Animals: Poor Clinical Subjects

Animals do not get many of the diseases humans do, such as major types of heart disease, certain cancers, HIV, Parkinson’s disease, and schizophrenia. Instead, signs of these diseases are artificially induced in animals in laboratories to mimic human diseases. This mimicry weakens the complexity of human conditions which are affected by wide-ranging variables such as genetics and psychological issues.

One such example where animal testing has failed to predict hazards was from the morning sickness drug thalidomide. From 1958 - 1961, more than 10,000 babies were born suffering from phocomelia, a failure of the limbs to develop, and thousands more babies died. Thalidomide had been made available to doctors largely because of the existing animal data. "In approximately 10 strains of rats, 15 strains of mice, 11 breeds of rabbits, 2 breeds of dogs, 3 strains of hamsters, 8 species of primates and in other such varied species as cats, armadillos, guinea pigs, swine and ferrets in which thalidomide has been tested, teratogenic effects (developmental malformations) have been induced only occasionally. "Moreover, the few animals who did experience birth defects did so only with exposure to huge concentrations of thalidomide” (Matthews 2008). Regulatory authorities demanded testing on at least two different animal species before a drug entered human trials, a rule that stands to this day. But even by today's animal testing standards, scientists would likely not detect thalidomide’s crippling effects using rats and mice, as humans are not two pound rodents.

Countless animals have been tortured through electrocution, toxic poisoning, chemical burns and psychological torment in the name of medical research, often with unyielding results. Effective, less expensive alternatives exist, and can be used repeatedly, e.g. synthetic cellular tissue, artificial organs and cultured bones. Computers have also been used to simulate and estimate the potential damage that a product or chemical can cause, and human tissues and cells have been used to examine the effects of harmful substances; all useful and reliable alternatives to testing products on live animals. Therefore, because effective means of product toxicity testing are available without the use of live animal specimens, testing potentially deadly substances on animals is unnecessary and unethical (Dunnuck, 2014).

Dr. Aysha Akhtar, a double Board-certified neurologist and preventive medicine/public health specialist and Fellow of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics examines how the treatment of animals impacts human health. In her peer-reviewed journals, she chronicles how treating animals better is not only good for animals, but also good for us. Dr. Akhtar explains that animal experimentation significantly harms humans through misleading safety studies, potential abandonment of effective therapeutics, and direction of resources away from more effective testing methods (Akhtar 2015).

Three major conditions explain why animal experimentation, regardless of the disease category studied, fails to reliably inform human health:

(1) the effects of the laboratory environment and other variables on study outcomes,
(2) disparities between animal models of disease and human diseases, and
(3) species differences in physiology and genetics.

Animal experimentation is poorly predictive of human outcomes in that it is unreliable across a wide category of disease areas, and that existing literature demonstrates the unreliability of animal experimentation, thereby undermining scientific arguments in its favor. Dr. Akhtar further shows that the collective harms that result from an unreliable practice tip the ethical scale of harms and benefits against continuation in much, if not all, experimentation involving animals.

Medical experimentation is costly regardless of the test subjects, but is costlier when the subjects do not biologically match the beneficiaries. Laboratory procedures and conditions exert influences on animals’ physiology and behaviors that are difficult to control and that can ultimately impact research outcomes, and which prevent species-typical behaviors, causing distress and abnormal behaviors among animals. “These stress-related changes in physiological parameters caused by the laboratory procedures and environments can have significant effects on test results. Stressed rats, for example, develop chronic inflammatory conditions and intestinal leakage, which add variables that can confound data. A variety of conditions in the laboratory cause changes in neurochemistry, genetic expression, and nerve regeneration” (Akhtar 2015).

After two decades of heart failure experiments on dogs at Wayne State University in Detroit, no medical advances have been made that help the millions of Americans suffering from heart disease. The lack of translational success of heart failure animal research is primarily attributable to species differences in cardiovascular physiology and pathophysiology, and to the inability to replicate human heart failure causes, natural history, manifestations, complications, and responses to treatments. Animal models of human heart failure are very limited in their ability to provide a useful understanding of human heart failure or to evaluate potential therapeutic measures with reliable translation to heart failure patients (PCRM 2014).

Using animals in research and to test the safety of products has been a topic of heated debate for decades. Data collected by F. Barbara Orlans for her book, In the Name of Science: Issues in Responsible Animal Experimentation, shows that sixty percent of all animals used in testing are used in biomedical research and product-safety testing. People have different feelings for animals; many look upon animals as companions while others view animals as a means for advancing medical techniques or furthering experimental research. In whatever way individuals perceive animals, the fact remains that animals are being unnecessarily exploited by research facilities and cosmetics companies across the country and around the world, and living beings that experience pain and emotions do not deserve undue harm.

A more effective alternative is humane medical experimentation on voluntary death row inmates vs. animals, which is reasonable and scientifically sound. Testing on non-human animals who are genetically and physiologically different than humans, unable to communicate reactions to medications and treatment, is unyielding toward the cure of human diseases. Therefore, the use of willing human subjects has been shown to be more effective toward the discovery of cures of human diseases and in the development of safer medications.

The High Cost of Death Row Appeals Is Not Appealing

This proposal is to allow voluntary death row inmates the opportunity to submit to clinical experimentation, and in exchange, they will receive the benefit of anesthetics, pain medication and medical care, and they will not be confined to their cells for twenty-three hours a day. Rather than sentencing inmates to death, with prolonged costly appeals at the expense of taxpayers, inmates can repay society for their heinous crimes in the name of science, for the betterment of humankind. There are those who support capital punishment over "keeping cold-blooded killers alive", but some in favor are unaware of the significantly higher costs for death penalty cases over life sentences. The cost to execute a death row inmate varies state by state, but in all states, it is costlier than a life sentence, considering the mounting taxpayer-funded legal fees, and compounded costs to house inmates over those years. In Texas, a death penalty case costs an average of $2.3 million, about three times the cost of imprisoning someone in a single cell at the highest security level for 40 years (Kaplan 2016).

Religious and Ethics: Morality and Ethics is the Territory of Humans

In the bible, it is written that animals should be treated humanely however, man dictates that humans have dominion over animals. Those who "wrote the book" also wrote the rules, some of which have become laws, and man mandated his dominion to eat, use and exploit animals. Humans have a voice, and it is this voice that separates animals from humans, allowing man to speak in his defense, and reason with others for his rights. But those who oppose religion, and those who advocate for the rights of animals do not agree with these impositions. Religion is a choice, not mandatory, therefore religious imposition should not interfere with the law in any way, to include ethical opposition to the use of voluntary death row inmates for medical experimentation.

Ethicists in opposition will liken experimenting on humans to the Nazi experimentation during WWII. Jewish and Roma people were forcefully submitted to the most vicious, sadistic experimentation by the likes of Joseph Mengele, where there was not a shred of compassion or humanity. Pregnant women were in demand for use in genetic and other forms of experimentation. Their bellies would be sliced open with no anesthesia, and the fetuses removed for further experimentation, leaving the mothers for dead. Twins were of special interest to the Nazis, seeing multiple births as an opportunity to exponentially further the Arian race through eugenics, the racist pseudoscience of ethnic cleansing, preserving only those who conformed to a Nordic stereotype.

Prisoner advocates will sharply oppose this proposal, citing lack of transparency regarding inmate rights. “It is because of such treatment that in 1947, the Nuremberg Code spelled out an unequivocal position on the experimentation of people in captivity: The human subject of medical experimentation "should have legal capacity to give consent ... [and] should be so situated as to be able to exercise free power of choice, without the intervention of any element of force, fraud, deceit, duress, over-reaching or other ulterior form of constraint or coercion” (Silja 2013). But there is no comparing the victims of the most heinous human experimentation in history, who were not guilty of any crimes, were not volunteers, and were not provided anesthetics, pain medication or aftercare. With implementation of oversight committees, the rights of inmates will be protected to ensure they are treated fairly and humanely. The word worth noting is “voluntary”, and if someone is willing to submit themselves without coercion, no one should argue their decision, especially if their willingness to help will benefit others as well as themselves.

Since humans have voluntarily submitted to clinical trials for years, the question of ethics regarding inmates who, without coercion, voluntarily submit to the same should not be raised. Giving inmates the opportunity to pay their debt to society through the voluntary donation of their bodies is reasonable and clinically sound, and will bring scientists to the forefront of curing diseases for the benefit of humankind and animals alike. Human subjects help scientists develop more effective drugs and treatments, and the drug approval process will be more expedient. Inmates suffering from diseases will have access to treatment and ongoing medical care. Innocent animals who are poor test subjects will be spared undue suffering. And pharmaceutical companies can help offset mounting incarceration costs, minimizing taxpayer burden. With these credible points and empirical evidence that animal testing is not an accurate science, and that humans are ideal subjects, the use of voluntary death row inmates will serve society in the name of science and justice.


Akhtar, A. (2015). ‘The Flaws and Human Harms of Animal Experimentation’, Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics, 24(4), pp. 407–419. doi: 10.1017/S0963180115000079.

Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. (2014). White Paper. Retrieved February 18, 2017 from

Orlans, F. Barbara. In the Name of Science: Issues in Responsible Animal Experimentation. New York: Oxford UP, 1993.

Matthews, R. (2008) “When Animals Fail the Test. The National. Retrieved from

Kaplan, P. Collins, and V. Mayhew. (2016) Oregon's Death Penalty: A Cost Analysis. "How much does the Oregon death penalty cost? The Oregonian Press Release, "New Report Calculates Oregon’s Death Penalty Financial Costs," Lewis & Clark Law School and Seattle University.

Dunnuck, H. (2014) Save the Animals: Stop Animal Testing. Lone Star College. Retrieved February 24, 2017 from

Talvi, Silja J.A. "Medical Testing on Prisoners Is Unethical and Should Be Outlawed." The Ethics of Medical Testing, edited by Tamara Thompson, Greenhaven Press, 2012. At Issue. Opposing Viewpoints in Context, End Medical Experimentation on Prisoners Now," In These Times, 26 Sept. 2006.

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.


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