I’ll start with a spoiler – this simple answer to this question, for me, is ‘yes’. That doesn’t make for a particularly enthralling blog post, though, so I’ll delve into things a little bit more.
For me, veganism is a lifestyle and not a diet. In my opinion that’s how everyone ought to see it, otherwise you run the risk of merely being plant-based, and no one wants that. I’m joking, of course. Anything you do to reduce the consumption of meat and dairy is great, but for some people it stops at the diet.
It doesn’t for me, and through my journey I’ve incorporated many changes to my lifestyle to ensure that I’m consuming as many ethical products as I can. This includes clothing, household goods, cosmetics, and accessories. No leather, no silk, no wool, nothing with animal-derived ingredients in.
Exception to the rule
There is one rather large exception to this rule, though, and that’s my mental health. Yeah, I know, it’s an exception to most rules such as ‘Function like an adult’ and countless others. Since 2014, I’ve been medicated for my depression and anxiety. I’ve taken a variation of different antidepressants over the years, before settling on a combination that suits me.
I turned vegan in 2016, and at the start I’ll admit my medication didn’t even cross my mind as not being vegan. I just didn’t think about it. Instead I spent time working out what I wanted to eat and what had sneaky meaty bits in it. It wasn’t until much later that I stopped to consider that actually, the medicine I hurl down the hatch twice a day is probably as cruelty-free as a butcher’s shop.
Animal testing in medicine
The pharmaceutical industry relies on animal testing before human trials to make sure the medicine it produces works. That means there is a significant chance that the medication I take has at some point been tested on animals and can’t be classed as vegan.
The testing on medicines doesn’t take place once a drug has been approved, so mass-manufactured pharmaceuticals aren’t tested every time they make a new batch. The individual pills I take won’t have been tested, but they were developed with animal and human trials. In that sense, the drug has been manufactured as vegan, but its development was not.
Whilst approved medications don’t undergo continued testing, there are plenty of sneaky ingredients that aren’t vegan. Lactose is a common binding agent and is used in drugs in such small quantities that it often isn’t even listed. As a milk by-product, though, the inclusion of lactose means a medication is inherently non-vegan.
Sneaky non-vegan ingredients
Even vitamins and supplements aren’t always vegan. Vitamin D3 is often derived from animal products, and you’d be surprised (or not, if you’re a long-time vegan) how many milk derivatives are just lumped in willy nilly despite providing no actual benefits. It’s the same with over-the-counter medicines, hiding away sneaky ingredients and being developed through animal testing. Admittedly, we have more choice about which of these we use, and my preference is usually ‘none.’
So, considering all the testing and sneaky ingredients, can I really still consider myself a vegan? My answer is a resounding yes. I would be extremely surprised to encounter someone who was 100% vegan, free from medication, sprinklings of non-vegan vitamin fortification in foods, and completely vegan household products. That’s not to say they don’t exist, but I don’t think they’re the majority.
Instead, I eliminate cruelty from every aspect of my life I have control over. I don’t always have control over what medicine I take. I’m not about to give up antidepressants to live a more compassionate life. The effects of that, arguably, would minimise my efforts in other areas because I’d be too mental to do anything properly.
Do what you can
Someone on twitter once suggested that to be vegan I ought to give these medications up and try useful things such as exercise, nutrition, etc. You can imagine, I’m sure, exactly how short the shrift they got from me was (hint: microscopic). It smacked of ignorance and, frankly, ableism. Sure, I could choose not to take mental health medication. That’s fine.
There are other vegans, however, who live with chronic illnesses and rely on non-vegan medication to reduce pain or other symptoms. They can’t simply go for a lovely nature hike or drink gallons of kale juice to feel better. I would never criticise them for taking their medication, so I’m not about to do it to myself.
It’s the same as the way I wouldn’t criticise someone for not being vegan if they didn’t have the means or health to do so. There are plenty of perfectly healthy, able-bodied people who just can’t be arsed to contemplate the impact their choices make on the planet. If you want to target vegan activism, start there. Don’t attack people whose choices aren’t as easy as others.
The point is, as I’m sure I’ve said before, it’s about trying. It’s about working as much as I can to reduce the harm I cause animals and the planet. Incidentally, the number of animals used to test medication on is miniscule compared to the number of animals consumed for meat every year. Next time you want to goad a vegan for not being 100% perfect, maybe take a look at yourself first.
The right choices
I understand that animal testing on medicines and pharmaceuticals isn’t going to stop any time soon. There are fluctuations in the numbers of animals used, but generally it’s between three to four million each year and doesn’t show signs of slowing down. Until more viable options are consistently researched and applied, what choice do we have? We live in a society that’s inherently imbalanced in countless ways, and our access to medication is one of them.
We just don’t have much of a choice in what we’re given, so it seems remiss to use it as a parameter by which to measure someone’s veganism. I’ll continue to call myself vegan, because as far as I’m concerned, that’s exactly what I am.
Is someone who eats plant-based but wears leather and uses cosmetics that have been tested on animals a vegan? No. Is someone who eliminates cruelty from their diet and lifestyle as best they can but has to take non-vegan medication a vegan? Yes, and you won’t change my mind on that.