Vivisection: testing the debate

Scientists and politicians should stop pussyfooting around, and mount an unequivocal defence of animal research.

Helene Guldberg

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Topics Politics

A report by the UK House of Lords select committee on animals in scientific procedures, published on 24 July 2002, found that ‘it is morally acceptable for human beings to use other animals, but that it is morally wrong to cause them unnecessary or avoidable suffering’ (1).

The report says that more should be done to fund and promote ‘alternative methods’ through a process known as the Three Rs – the reduction, refinement and replacement of animal experiments.

But what is most needed today is an unequivocal defence of animal experimentation. If calls for increased funding for ‘alternatives’ were justified on scientific grounds, fair enough – but they are not. Arguing for a reduction in animal procedures on moral and ethical grounds concedes too much.

Lord Smith of Clifton, chairman of the select committee, agrees that this is not the time to be apologetic about animal experiments. ‘It is important for the science community to come out and put their heads above the parapet’, he told me. ‘Very few scientists – and Professor Colin Blakemore and Lord Winston are the exceptions – are prepared to speak out on these issues. We should encourage more scientists to come forward so that we can have a mature discussion.’

Lord Smith stresses that the vast majority of people do want safe medicines and medical procedures, and they accept – sometimes reluctantly – that this means testing them on animals. Very few would accept drugs being given to human patients for the first time that had never before been tested on any living animal. Therefore, Lord Smith argued ‘scientists should take the public more into their confidence’.

To this end, the committee recommends repealing Section 24 of the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act. Section 24 states that the Home Office cannot reveal any information it receives on animal procedures. Instead, the Lords recommends that ‘specific justification should be made for each class of information that needs to be kept confidential, such as the identity of the researchers and matters of commercial confidentiality and intellectual property’. In other words, ‘there should be a presumption in favour of information being publicly available’.

Lord Smith emphasises that with greater openness, ‘the public will be provided with the facts to make up their own minds’. It is refreshing to hear such a defence of the public’s ability to deal sensibly with controversial issues. But given the defensiveness about animal research among scientists and politicians – and expressed in the House of Lords report – openness alone is no solution. What is needed is a clear defence of animal experiments that focuses on the benefits to human beings – without feeling the need to apologise.

This is particularly important now, given that the number of animal procedures is likely to increase in the near future. In 2001, 2.62million animals were used in experiments in the UK – a record low and almost half the number used in 1971. But new European legislation will require up-to-date testing of thousands of chemicals already in use in Europe. And as scientists investigate the information coming out of the Human Genome Project, the figures for animal procedures are likely to rise substantially over the next few years.

Yet the UK government, which has pledged to respond to the committee report within six months, is extremely sensitive to public opinion on animal research and is likely to view these increases in animal research as ‘politically unacceptable’.

Furthermore, the system for regulating animal experiments in the UK today – the tightest in the world – is in danger of restricting future medical advances. Researchers can only obtain licences from the Home Office if they clearly demonstrate that there are no alternatives to experimenting on animals. They must also show that the potential benefits of using animals outweigh any suffering the animals may experience.

The committee recommends streamlining this licensing process. ‘There is too much bureaucracy, which hampers scientific research and can harm animal welfare’, says Lord Smith. But using a defence of ‘animal welfare’ as a justification for lifting restrictions will get us nowhere.

It may be true that heavy bureaucracy has resulted in scientists often having to wait so long to secure approval for small amendments to research licences that research has become outdated, resulting in the abandonment of the research and the destruction of the animals. But if there is a need to increase the number of animals used in scientific procedures, how can this be construed as being in the interest of animal welfare? Animal research is, on the whole, detrimental to animal welfare. Animals are given debilitating diseases and many are destroyed. The point is that, so far as human welfare is concerned, this is necessary.

Previous generations grew up in an age without antibiotics, organ transplantation, kidney dialysis, hip replacements, keyhole surgery, ultrasound scanning or effective drugs for high blood pressure, asthma, epilepsy, ulcers, cancer, mental illness and much more. These medical advances would not have been won, or would have been introduced at great human cost, had it not been for animal experimentation.

In today’s climate, the anti-vivisectionist message that animal research is pointless, wasteful and destructive has a great resonance. By highlighting the need to reduce animal experiments and find ‘alternatives’, the Lords is in danger of fuelling these concerns.

Read on:

spiked-issue: On animals

(1) ‘Report of the Select Committee on Animals in Scientific Procedures’, House of Lords, 24 July 2002

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