Who will stand up for animal experiments?

We need fewer laws against animal rights activists, and more arguments in defence of vivisection.

Helene Guldberg

Topics Politics

Britain’s Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, which went through the Remaining Stages in the House of Commons last week, will give the police greater powers to clamp down on animal rights extremists. It will soon become a criminal offence to cause ‘economic damage’, and those found to have the ‘intention of threatening or interfering with contracts involving animal research organisations’ will face up to five years in jail.

This is the government’s response to animal rights activists’ campaigns to disrupt the work of large-scale research institutions, including Huntingdon Life Sciences (HLS) and facilities at Oxford and Cambridge universities, whose directors and employees have been harassed. It will also protect individuals from firms that have contracts with such institutions, including construction workers and cleaners. Prime minister Tony Blair says the intimidating tactics of anti-vivisectionists are a barrier to Britain becoming ‘a global magnet for science companies’.

The actions of animal rights activists – including targeting individuals and their families by protesting outside their homes and subjecting them to obscene phone calls – are indeed a disgrace, and reflect the degeneracy of their misanthropic outlook.

The aim of the anti-vivisectionists is to stop animal research – research which, so far as human welfare is concerned, is absolutely necessary. Previous generations grew up in an age without antibiotics, organ transplantation, blood transfusion, or effective drugs for high blood pressure, asthma, epilepsy, cancer 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. And despite what the animal rights activists argue, stopping, or even merely curtailing, animal research will seriously jeopardise future medical advances.

Because of the activities of anti-vivisectionists some pharmaceutical companies are asking whether it is appropriate to carry out essential research in the UK. But however detestable and vile they may be, a ragbag of activists are surely not able to hold multimillion-pound pharmaceutical companies, research institutions and the government to ransom?

Call me a cynic, but surely there are other economic factors at play for companies considering whether to invest in the UK or other places, such as south east Asia? Or is their siege mentality so strong that they feel powerless in the face of a few pathetic misanthropes?

The Association of British Pharmaceutical Industry (ABPI) reports that during 2004 there were 108 threatening and abusive phone calls and other communications, compared with 38 in 2003 and 23 in 2002. There were 177 instances of damage to company, personal and private property in 2004, compared with 146 in 2003 and 60 in 2002. These incidences are no doubt distressing for the individuals at the receiving end. But considering the number of people who work for organisations that carry out, or have links to, animal research, then the problem is not that considerable.

Also, the ABPI figures show that the number of visits to the homes of company directors and their employees by activists have fallen. Home visits to directors were down from 113 in 2003 to 90 in 2004 and visits to employees’ homes fell from 146 in 2003 to 89 in 2004.

It is striking that, whenever the issue of animal rights extremism hits the headlines, it is always the same examples that are referred to: bricks thrown through a cleaner’s windows; paint thrown at the cars and homes of research staff; a company director, Brian Cass, being attacked with baseball bats; and, more recently, the desecration of the grave of an 82-year-old woman. But all these activities are currently illegal. In fact Cass’ lead attacker was arrested and sentenced to three years in prison. Why, then, would we need to bring in new laws? There are more than enough laws to deal with harassment and intimidation, and if protests involve physical violence then the law is well enough equipped to deal with them.

As I have pointed out on spiked before, ‘Anti-science arguments are given credence and credibility – and a disproportionate influence – precisely because of the defensive climate today, which the government epitomises perfectly’. The response of industry and the research community to the current climate of distrust of medical research is to elevate their victim status – and they seem to have succeeded in winning the sympathy of the government by drawing attention to the intimidation that they face.

After years of prevarication over animal experimentation and a general spinelessness when confronted by controversial issues, the government now seems to want to convince researchers and companies that it is on their side. But the current bill is little more than a symbolic gesture. Of course animal rights activists should be prevented from jeopardising animal research. But introducing new laws is not only unnecessary; it may also allow the activists to gain some sympathy as victims of civil rights abuses.

If the government really is interested in creating ‘the best climate for science to flourish’ it should stop pointing the finger at the extremists and get its own house in order. For a start, it should lift the regulatory restraints on research carried out in this country. The UK’s system for regulating animal experiments is the tightest in the world, and is the main restriction on medical advance. Researchers can only obtain licences 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. Heavy bureaucracy has resulted in scientists 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.

Cambridge University also had to ditch plans to build a world-class primate research lab, not because of the activities of animal rights extremists but because of an exaggerated fear of what the activists might do. Following a five-year delay in getting planning permission, costs escalated and the university had to shelve the plans.

The availability of non-human models with similar neuroanatomical and biochemical properties to humans is vital in progressing our understanding of the brain and for developing new medicines to combat neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and Huntington’s diseases, as well as stroke and epilepsy. But neither the UK government nor the research community has given an unequivocal message of support for such a research lab.

Research on the great apes (chimpanzees, gorillas and orang utans) was banned under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, 1986. The Animals Procedure Committee, which advises the home secretary on matters concerned with the Animals Act, says its goal is of ‘minimising, and eventually eliminating primate use and suffering’. Surely its goal should be to minimise human suffering? That, quite frankly, means that the killing and maiming of animals is necessary. We are not talking about wanton assaults on animals, of course, which most of us find abhorrent. But millions of animals have been and will be used in experiments; they will be cut open, pumped full of toxins and carcinogens, and ultimately ‘destroyed’, in order to further scientific knowledge and save human lives.

There is no point in capitulating to the activists’ arguments – as the government and the research community seem to be doing – by highlighting concern for animal welfare. With such equivocation, it is not surprising that Britain is failing to become a global magnet for science companies.

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Topics Politics


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