In defence of animal experimentation

It’s time that medical researchers were unequivocal in putting human need ahead of animal-welfare concerns.

How did a small, fairly insignificant group like Animal Aid manage to make a big splash this week on the alleged horrors of animal experimentation? Not because it is influential or powerful in its arguments, but because society feels queasy about vivisection. At a time when the authorities and even medical researchers seem unwilling to stand up and make an unequivocal case for the importance of animal experimentation, groups like Animal Aid are empowered to spread doubt and suspicion.

Animal Aid’s campaign is a rehash of the same old anthropomorphic, misanthropic arguments: mice are being ‘tortured in water mazes’, zebrafish are being ‘mutilated’, pigs are being ‘sacrificed’ all for no real reason except seemingly to satisfy the perverse pleasure of sadistic medical researchers. The reasons given by Animal Aid for a financial boycott of four charities that benefit from animal experimentation - Cancer Research UK, the British Heart Foundation, Parkinson’s UK and the Alzheimer’s Society - are nothing the British public hasn’t heard before.

Animal Aid’s report Victims of Charity, which supposedly provides the evidence base that lends support to its advertising campaign, fails miserably in its attempt to suggest that animal ‘suffering’ should be prioritised over trying to find a cure for cancer or Alzheimer’s. And the group’s attempt to conclude that animal-based research is a ‘wasteful and futile quest’ that doesn’t actually yield positive benefits to humans is laughable, contradicted by countless medical discoveries, from the use of dogs to extract insulin to treat diabetes to the experiments on armadillos that developed a cure for leprosy.

So why are major figures taking the Animal Aid campaign seriously, suggesting that a motley crew of bunny-worshipping nutjobs could have a major effect upon the public’s financial support for medical research? Lord Willis of Knaresborough, chairman of the Association of Medical Research Charities, rightly dismisses the campaign as ‘illogical and ill-conceived’ but then suggests: ‘It will have consequences for charities targeted as, during tight economic times, any small downturn in donations could really put back cures by decades.’

Why should even such a small downturn in donations happen? The assumption seems to be that the very presence of this advertising campaign will mean that – rather than seeing Animal Aid’s arguments for the nonsense they are – financial supporters of these charities will somehow be fooled by these arguments and withdraw their financial support. Do they really think that a potential donor, initially inspired by trying to prevent others having to experience the suffering that a family member or friend went through, would suddenly have a change of heart in order to save a zebrafish?

Yet such concerns appear widespread. A report in the UK Independent asserts: ‘Privately, the charities are concerned that the Animal Aid campaign could have an effect on donations – but they are also worried about tackling the organisation head-on in case it exacerbates the problem.’

When contacted by spiked yesterday, more often it seemed that, privately, the charities were more concerned about giving publicity to a small bunch of hysterical no-marks than making the case for animal testing. All were willing to put forward statements about the importance of animal testing and engage in a debate, but they often came across as unnecessarily apologetic and defensive.

James Culling, head of individual giving, legacies and membership at Parkinson’s UK, said that his charity was not concerned about the impact of the Animal Aid campaign on donations and that ‘our members and supporters know that a small, but vital part of our research programme involves animals.’

Dr Kieran Breen, director of research and development at Parkinson’s UK, used the example of the Parkinson’s drug Levodopa, ‘which would not have been developed without the insights gained from research involving animals’. He argued that animal research would play a ‘key role’ in ultimately developing a cure for Parkinson’s.

A strong case for animal testing was made by Dr David Scott, director of science funding at Cancer Research UK: ‘Cancer survival has doubled over the last 40 years – that progress is based on the wide array of new treatments developed and tested using animal research.’ Or, as a spokesperson for the British Heart Foundation argued, ‘thousands of people are only alive today thanks to pioneering treatments such as pacemakers and heart transplants, which just wouldn’t have been possible without involving animals’.

Such powerful defences of the importance of animal research are to be welcomed. However, all too often they are followed by an admission that such research is regrettable. Dr Scott, for example, emphasised: ‘We do no research with monkeys, dogs or cats. We have strict ethical policies in relation to animals and follow rigorous government guidelines to ensure that animals are only used where there’s no alternative.’ This was echoed by the British Heart Foundation, which stressed that animal testing is ‘not a decision taken lightly but sometimes there is simply no alternative’.

While such clauses could be seen as an attempt to avoid appearing cold-hearted and unsympathetic to the suffering of animals, they actually reveal the extent to which concessions have been made to animal-rights protesters.

Nothing typifies the extent to which such concessions have been made more than the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animal Research (NC3Rs), still flourishing under the UK coalition government and funded by a mixture of state and private money from a range of research organisations. The NC3Rs declares that the replacement of animals in testing ‘is the ultimate aim for the centre, but as long as the use of animals continues to be necessary, every effort must be made to minimise the numbers used and improve their welfare’.

Such attempts to place restrictions on the types and numbers of animals experimented on is troubling, because it is having an impact upon research organisations throughout the UK. Yes, animal research may have saved the lives of millions from cancer, but could experimenting on dogs, cats and monkeys potentially save the lives of millions more? Such human-centred ethical considerations suggest that the objectives of major medical research organisations may have been worryingly compromised to satisfy small coteries of animal-rights protesters unable to differentiate between the value of self-conscious human life and that of an unreflective beast.

A number of the charities were quick to cite a recent opinion poll that showed 90 per cent of the UK public accept the idea of animal research to some degree, and three in five accept it unconditionally. Thanks, in part, to the strident defence of animal research put forward by researchers like Tipu Aziz, professor of neurosurgery at Oxford, public opinion is currently stacked in favour of conducting animal experiments in order to save human lives.

However, this should not be taken for granted, and shying away from engaging in a public debate for fear that any such debate may lead to a shift in opinion is the worst thing that charities and researchers could do. Indeed, there is still considerable ground to be gained: the argument needs to be won with the other two out of five members of the public who don’t yet accept animal research unconditionally. A strong case needs to be made for the abolition of the NC3Rs and the channelling of that research money instead into work that will benefit human lives. Moreover, there is much lobbying that should be done to scrap laws preventing experiments on great apes. All of these sops to the anthropomorphic fantasies of a minute anti-vivisection lobby are hindering the development of medical science.

Rather than being on the defensive when the issue of animal testing comes up in the public arena, medical researchers should instead be on the offensive, seizing the opportunity to defeat the feeble arguments of groups like Animal Aid and making a positive case for the vital importance of animal testing in transforming – and saving – the lives of millions of human beings. The abolition of existing ‘ethical’ restrictions on animal testing would remove barriers that are stifling medical progress and could be costing the lives of many more human beings.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked.

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