Vivisection: Put human welfare first

Scientists who support a new centre for researching alternatives to animal testing have their priorities all wrong.

Stuart Derbyshire

Topics Science & Tech

The radical animal rights philosopher, Tom Regan, argues that there is an alternative to using animals for product testing and medical research: not to use them. Regan argues that using animals instrumentally is wrong because animals share important psychological states and dispositions with humans (1). Animals are, in Regan’s terminology, ‘subjects of a life’ and have an ‘inherent value’ that we should not violate.

Judging by the response of many scientists and other interested parties to Lord Sainsbury’s proposal for a UK centre to develop alternatives to using animals in medical research (2), Regan’s ideas now command a significant amount of support. The British centre will be based on the Johns Hopkins Center for Alternatives to Animal Testing (CAAT) (3) in Baltimore, USA, which was set up in 1981 – and will be called the National Centre for the Replacement, Refinement and Reduction of Animals in Research. Both centres share a common mission to reduce animal testing, and increase research with anything but animals.

The Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) welcomed the move as a way of improving the quality of research and the welfare of animals, and supported the principle of reduction, refinement and replacement (the ‘3Rs’). Dr Philip Wright, director of science and technology at the ABPI said: ‘The UK-based pharmaceutical industry is already at the forefront of investment and development of the 3Rs, but the government’s intention to build on the excellent work of the Centre for Best Practice in Animal Research (CBPAR) is very welcome.’ (4)

Stephen Holgate, professor of immunopharmacology at Southampton University told the Guardian: ‘I think it’s a super idea. A centre brings focus, which is excellent.’ (5) In the same article, Dr Mark Matfield, executive director of the Research Defence Society (RDS) (6) suggested that the scientific community ‘should welcome this report with open arms’, and said that while we may never be able to fully replace animal experiments, the centre ‘will be a very welcome step in that direction’. Baroness Greenfield, director of the Royal Institution, also gave the centre the thumbs up.

The only voice of dissent appeared to be from Tipu Aziz, one of Britain’s top brain surgeons, whose work has helped to alleviate some of the worst symptoms of Parkinson’s Disease. Aziz told the Observer: ‘There is no substitute for carrying out experiments on animals and it is dishonest to suggest otherwise. If we want to rid ourselves of the scourge of brain disorders such as Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s diseases, we have to face the fact that we need to carry out animal experiments.’ (7)

Aziz’s objection to the centre is based on the only widely accepted argument in favour of animal research, which is that animal research is vital to the development of new medicines and other therapies. This argument is true, as many others and myself have documented elsewhere (8). Numerous medical advances have followed experimental research with animals, including cyclosporin, a potent anti-rejection drug developed using primates, and insulin, which was developed using dogs. Most of the major vaccines in use today were developed in animals, including the vaccines against rubella, polio and hepatitis B. Kidney transplantation and open-heart surgery were developed in dogs, and the design of the first heart-lung transplant was developed in rhesus macaques.

The future of medical science remains heavily dependent upon animal research. The current vaccine candidates against AIDS were all developed using primates; future transplant sources will probably include genetically modified pigs; and the best hopes for drugs to combat diseases including Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, cystic fibrosis, diabetes and cancer depend upon animal research. There is good reason to be proud of past achievements using animals and to expect that similar breakthroughs will follow in the future.

But on its own, the argument that animal research will lead to medical breakthroughs is insufficient to justify the continuation of this research. There are several reasons for this. First, the benefits argument is vulnerable to the critique made by Tom Regan and others. Regan argues that we cannot justify the instrumental use of animals simply because we like the outcome any more than we might use a beneficial outcome to justify the instrumental use of human beings. Secondly, the benefits argument, when taken in isolation, encourages a distorted and ultimately dishonest presentation of science that impoverishes the pursuit of knowledge and hangs basic scientists, who are highly unlikely to generate a medical breakthrough, out to dry.

Regan argues that animals share important psychological properties with human beings, such as the ability to feel pain or be frightened, to remember the past and anticipate the future. It is because of these psychological properties, says Regan, that we don’t subject human beings to harmful experimental practices, and so the same should also be true for the animal world. Scientists largely support, in principle, the replacement, refinement and reduction of animals in research for similar reasons. This means that the only major difference between scientists and Regan is one of practice: Regan demands that we stop vivisection now, while scientists try to put that terminus off until the yield of medical benefits can be obtained by other means.

I can fully understand why Regan and other anti-vivisectionists become so frustrated and angry when faced with many scientists’ double-think and hypocrisy. On the one hand, scientists claim that the welfare of animals is paramount and that the replacement of animals in research and testing is highly desirable, yet they routinely drill holes into the heads of animals, infuse untested drugs and perform experimental surgeries. To claim that you are respecting the welfare of an animal as you slice it open to investigate tissue rejection presents a kind of self-delusion.

Others disagree. Jerrold Tannenbaum, professor of veterinary medicine at the University of California, Davis, has argued that as long as the animal doesn’t experience pain or discomfort then there is no problem: ‘[animals] being killed [painlessly] does not raise a question of animal welfare.’ (9) Tannenbaum laments the fact that Regan’s view allows animal welfare to be expanded to include pleasurable life experiences that are denied by death. What Tannenbaum misses, however, is that beliefs that animals can experience human-like pain, logically lead to further questions about their ‘psychological’ needs, including their happiness.

It is the focus on animal welfare that is itself the problem. If you engage in activities that are invasive or lethal to animals or if you control their reproduction, living space and habits, you are expressing a de facto belief that animals are sufficiently different from humans to make such activities justifiable. Scientists who defend themselves against accusations of cruelty by promoting their allegiance to animal welfare, forget that the real reason for animal experimentation is the exceptional nature of human beings.

There are enormous and highly significant differences between the human world and the natural world of animals. The basis of this difference is our enhanced ability to reason and develop culturally. It is almost ludicrous, but apparently necessary, to point out that animals are lacking in discernible signs of culture and progress. The staggering scale and richness of human culture is unlike anything in any other species. The development of medicine, industry, transportation, communication, clean water, a stable food supply, warm habitats, and so on, should speak for themselves.

The self-reflective ability of humans, which made this tangible material progress possible, also has moral and political consequences. Humans are free agents, within the limits of any given political system, and organise their behaviour according to rights and customs that are not reducible to concerns with pains, pleasures, or the pursuit of good (10).

Part of humans’ self-reflective cultural space involves debate about morality, which is necessarily constructed from the perspective of moral agents who are self-conscious, rational beings who inevitably have priority in any moral system. Only humans can dictate life, suggesting that the health, quality and extension of human life should have priority over concerns regarding animal life. Only self-conscious moral agents can weigh and judge the life of humans or animals. This places human beings into a central position, not via some act of special pleading, but as a function of their exceptional and special abilities (10). We have a moral centrality that places us in a position of authority over animals.

In short, since animals lack the rationality to consent, it is humans who must decide on how they are used. Inasmuch as humans are authorities over themselves, or can create moral boundaries as part of their community, we place ourselves at liberty to do with our own animals whatever we wish. Arguably, where the aim is one of frank malevolence, the agents involved have rejected morality itself and are acting in an anti-social manner worthy of sanction. It is appropriate to distinguish between practices aimed at cruelty and those motivated by scientific, educational or cultural aims. Such a distinction will lead to a condemnation of some animal uses, but will not count against those that are part of sport, consumption or research (10).

Basic animal research can only be defended when it is placed within a moral sphere that champions the pursuit of human knowledge and understanding. The difference between a basic and a clinical researcher is that the former pursues a question for its own sake, whereas the latter addresses some medical health issue. Often the two fields of enquiry speak directly to one another – there have been claims that the distinction is overly simplistic (11), and attempts to demonstrate the vital role played by basic research in many clinical breakthroughs (12). Nevertheless, there is an obvious distinction between, for example, examining the structure of a monkey brain simply to understand that structure, and giving a drug to a monkey to understand pharmacological action. The former may have implications for brain malfunction in humans, but its aim is to simply understand the structure of monkey brains.

Unfortunately, scientists seem unable to state that the aim of any study is just to develop knowledge. In the public sphere, and increasingly in the academic sphere, there is a demand that the outcome of any research project involving animals be self-consciously directed towards a wonder drug, rather than a process of scientific enquiry. The effect is to denigrate investigation, ignoring the fact that trying to understand the natural world is part of the scientific project independent of any clinical benefit to humanity. Scientific research will be impoverished if we insist on directing our research only towards clinical ends.

That impoverishment is upon us. Lord Sainsbury has said that he knows of no scientist who wanted to use animals unless ‘absolutely necessary’ (13) – by which he means to develop insights into the action of drugs and to further clinical therapies. The demand for absolute necessity should send a chill through the spine of any researcher. Is it ‘absolutely necessary’ to know that the representation of whiskers in the brains of rats differs if the rats are raised in cages without toys compared with cages that include running wheels, tunnels and mazes (14)? Will knowing the exact cellular structure of various divisions of the rhesus monkey brain lead to a clinical advance (15)? Does knowing that fish rock and rub their lips on gravel following an injection of bee acid improve the treatment of pain (16)?

That a clinical benefit may derive from any or all of these experiments is not the point. The fact is that these experiments were primarily performed to see what would happen when something is done, or to develop the understanding of an animal system, rather than to develop clinical insight.

A further problem with demanding clinical relevance is that it opens a gap between scientists’ rhetoric and the reality of scientific research. Presumably, all British scientists who want to do research on animals must now include an aim to develop medicine, regardless of how far-fetched and convoluted the justification may be. This highly defensive position is dangerous. As the gap between real and presented aims widens, there is an increasing risk of being called to account by a public who believed that their money was being used to fund vital medical research rather than for hi-tech photography of dead rats.

Perhaps nobody should be surprised that under these circumstances anti-vivisectionists are taking to the streets. Egged on by government and scientific bodies that support an end to animal research in principle, and fresh from their success of scuppering plans for a primate research centre in Cambridge, animal activists have turned their attention towards Oxford (17). The Department of Pharmacology at Oxford University is apparently planning to expand their animal research centre at a cost of £18million. Demonstrations are occurring every few days, and the Oxford Student has reported that several university staff members have been ‘visited at home’ by protesters, while the Scientist has reported building contractors having their vehicles vandalised.

I have no sympathy with the agenda of animal rights, but I can understand anyone’s confusion at a centre to promote alternatives to animal research being built at the same time as an expansion of animal research at Oxford.

One might expect the scientific establishment to put pressure on the government for a consistent defence of animal research as part of the pursuit of knowledge and betterment of human culture and medicine. Instead, the RDS and pharmaceutical industry are lobbying for tougher laws to protect them against violence and intimidation by animal rights groups, trying to make it a special crime to perform an already illegal act of protest under an animal welfare banner (18). Mark Matfield, executive director of the RDS, has also formed a support group, Victims of Animal Rights Extremism (VARE), to ‘provide a source of mutual support for people who have been targeted by animal rights extremists and to add further weight to the calls on government to introduce new measures to deal with animal rights extremism’ (19).

We can’t win the argument for animal research by banning the thoughts of those who oppose us, and although it is certainly no fun being targeted by animal activists, playing the victim card is a cheap way of securing public sympathy. Such manoeuvres, however, are perhaps the inevitable consequence of scientists who are backed into a corner. Animal researchers feel that they must simultaneously argue their allegiance to animal welfare and to medical advance through vivisection, always ensuring the emphasis is on clinical benefit regardless of any other motivation.

The truth is easier to command. Those of us who research on animals or support that research have made a moral choice to put humans first. We should behave and argue with a conviction that is worthy of the choice.

Stuart Derbyshire is assistant professor of anesthesiology and radiology at the University of Pittsburgh.

Read on:

spiked-issue: On animals

(1) T Regan, Defending Animal Rights, University of Illinois Press, 2001

(2) New centre to reduce animal tests, BBC News, 21 May 2004

(3) New animal research centre gets warm welcome from the pharmaceutical industry, 21 May 2004

(4) The Three R’s: The Way Forward, Joanne Zurlo, Deborah Rudacille, and Alan M Goldberg, reprinted from ‘Environmental Health Perspectives’, August 1996, vol. 104, no 8

(5) ‘Centre to cut down on animal research’, Guardian, 26 February 2004

(6) See the RDS website

(7) ‘Leading surgeon backs animal testing’, Observer, May 23, 2004

(8) Beastly Concerns , by Stuart Derbyshire; ‘Why Animal Rights are Wrong’, in Animal Experiments: Good or Bad?, E Lee (ed), Hodder & Stoughton, 2002; K Goodwin, AR Morrison, ‘Science and Self Doubt’, Reason, October 2000; Why animal experimentation matters: The use of animals in medical research, EF Paul and J Paul (eds), Transaction Publishers, 2001

(9) J Tannenbaum, ‘The paradigm shift toward animal happiness’, in, Why animal experimentation matters: The use of animals in medical research, EF Paul and J Paul (eds), Transaction Publishers, 2001

(10) TH Engelhardt, ‘Animals: Their right to be used’, in Why animal experimentation matters: The use of animals in medical research, EF Paul and J Paul (eds), Transaction Publishers, 2001

(11) S Zola, ‘Basic research, applied research, animal ethics, and an animal model of human amnesia’, in Why animal experimentation matters: The use of animals in medical research, EF Paul and J Paul (eds), Transaction Publishers, 2001

(12) J Comroe, R Dripps, ‘Scientific basis for the support of biomedical research’, Science 1976; 192: 105-111

(13) ‘Minister backs centre to cut tests on animals’, Daily Telegraph, May 22, 2005

(14) DB Polley, E Kvanak, RD Frostig, ‘Naturalistic experience transforms sensory maps in the adult cortex of caged animals’, Nature 2004; 429, 67 – 71

(15) BA Vogt, ‘Structural organization of cingulate cortex: Areas, neurons, and somatodendritic transmitter receptors’, in BA Vogt, M Gabriel (eds) Neurobiology of Cingulate Cortex and Limbic Thalamus: A Comprehensive Treatise, Boston: Birkhauser, 1993: 19-70

(16) LU Sneddon, VA Braithwaite, MJ Gentle, ‘Do fishes have nociceptors? Evidence for the evolution of a vertebrate sensory system’, Proceedings of the Royal Society of London Series B 2003; 1115-1121

(17) Animal activists in Oxford, The Scientist, May 17, 2004

(18) ‘Animal rights extremists step up attacks’, Independent, May 24, 2004

(19) See the VARE website

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Science & Tech


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