Animal research protests: what next?

The demo to defend the half-built Oxford lab was a very good start, but there are bigger beasts to slay than a handful of animal rights cranks.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics Politics

I’ve been on a lot of demos in my time, but none quite like Saturday’s march in Oxford from Broad Street to South Parks Road to defend the building of a biomedical research laboratory at Oxford University where experiments will be conducted on animals.

Animal rights activists have demonstrated against the lab almost every week for the past 18 months; the Animal Liberation Front (ALF), a ragbag of self-deluded ‘freedom fighters’ for animals, even described all academics, students and other workers at Oxford as ‘legitimate targets’ in its ‘war’ on the laboratory. On Saturday, the fightback started: around 700 people, a mix of scientists, academics, Home County wives and a generous sprinkling of bright and angry students, marched on the lab shouting such memorable slogans as ‘What do we want? The Oxford lab! When do we want it? Now!’, and ‘Animal research cures disease, Human beings over chimpanzees!’ (that one made some of the Home County types a little uncomfortable). The pro-testing protest easily overshadowed the anti-testing protest (which was taking place, as usual, opposite the lab), both on the day itself and in the miles of media coverage that followed.

Pro-Test, the group behind the pro-lab demo, is the brainchild of a 16-year-old school dropout from Swindon. He got the idea for it in late January, when he and two friends visited Oxford and decided to scribble the words ‘Support progress: build the Oxford lab’ on a makeshift placard and parade around the city centre. Now, less than a month after these inauspicious beginnings, Pro-Test has an organising committee mainly made up of Oxford students, an efficient press officer who has got coverage everywhere from The Times to the Guardian to the BBC, and has held its first big demo at which hundreds of people made a loud and lively public stand in defence of the lab, which is more than the government or even Oxford University itself has ever done. Such speedy growth of a forward-looking protest suggests that, while it sometimes appears as if animal rights activists are making all the running on this heated issue, in fact there are lots of people out there who feel strongly about defending science and progress.

It was hard not to be impressed, even carried away by the positivity of the protest. I mean, how many demos do you go on these days where a majority of the marchers are in their late teens or early 20s and whose aims are to defend ‘science, reasoned debate and the welfare of mankind’, no less? Not many, I’m guessing. But if this defence of science and reason is to be more than a flash in the pan (or a flash on the front pages of the papers) we need a sober analysis of both the demo itself and its wider impact on public debate. The demo may have gone against the ‘cultural script’ on science and progress, but sections of it embraced the cultural script on the politics of fear and even NIMBYism. And in the hands of the media the demo has become a story, not of progress vs backwardness, but of poor, put-upon students standing up to evil fanatics (the ALF etc) who apparently pose a threat to civilised values. There’s a danger that this stand in defence of reason could be subsumed by some of the other unreasonable trends of our time.

It was clear from chatting and arguing with some of the protesters (there was very much an air of open debate on the demo) that even some of the hard arguments about animal research itself need to be had out and won. More than a few protesters told me they supported animal experiments but not on primates. ‘It’s been shown that they are like us’, said one student. ‘And that makes it unacceptable to cage them or conduct experiments on them’. I noticed that the little leaflet being handed out by Pro-Test – titled ‘Animal research: the facts’ – had a picture of a rat on it, the unpopular rodent that most people would not mind seeing with electrodes stuck in its body or pills put down its throat. When some of the protesters chanted ‘Human beings over chimpanzees!’ there were murmurs of counter-protest – some clearly considered it too bald a statement of human superiority over animals and were worried, in the words of one woman, that it would ‘not win us much support’.

Yet the fact is that experiments on primates have been, and continue to be, very beneficial to medical and scientific progress. It is precisely because they are ‘like us’ biologically that experimenting on them is useful; and it is because they are not like us in terms of consciousness or self-awareness that experimenting on them is acceptable. As Helene Guldberg has argued on spiked: ‘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.’ (See Monkeying around, by Helene Guldberg.) Experiments on primates have played an important part in the development of chemotherapy and organ transplantation, and in the current attempts to develop a vaccine against AIDS. There is only so much you can do with a rat; much medical research requires the availability of primates for experimentation.

In many ways, the primate question cuts to what ought to be the heart of this debate: the recognition that there’s a fundamental moral difference between humans and animals. Human beings are conscious and aware and we are able to shape and make the world around us; animals, including primates, are none of these things. The vast majority of people accept that there are big differences between rats and humans or guinea pigs and humans (except, perhaps, one of the protesters on the anti-lab demo, who was wearing a badge that said ‘Rats have rights’; how misanthropic can you get?), which means that the vast majority of people accept experiments on rats and guinea pigs. But they are a lot more unsure about allowing experiments on monkeys or apes. This is where the hard debate must take place. We should be willing to stand up and say that it is entirely moral and proper to experiment on primates in the name of medical and scientific research that benefits humanity. Those on the demo who said they didn’t support experiments on primates are really not that different from the seven-year-old son of a friend of mine, who was also marching, who declared that he supported animal experimentation but not on dogs, because he likes dogs.

Some on the demo seemed to be marching, not so much for the lab and scientific progress, as against the allegedly threatening behaviour of animal rights activists. One of the chants was ‘No more threats, No more fear, Animal research wanted here’; one group of people, mainly academics, changed it to: ‘No more threats, No more fear, Peace and quiet wanted here.’ Some of the students, too, said they were marching because they wanted a quiet life. ‘I am tired of the constant disruptions from those lot’, said one, motioning towards the animal rights gathering which, as far as I could tell, was not doing a very good job of being disruptive, what with its disorganised line-up and half-hearted chants.

In an article in The Sunday Times published before the demo, one Oxford student wrote: ‘Too many of us have had our studies disrupted by protesters who think that anyone connected with the university is inherently evil. Only the other day friends told me that a library was closed early because of all the noise that animal rights campaigners were making outside.’ (1) In a discussion board on the BBC website, a student said he was going on the protest ‘not because I’m especially in favour of animal testing, simply that I detest the threats of violence and other extremist measures used by the ALF…[which has] no place in a civilised society’. Some of the protesters who were passionately in favour of animal testing told me they wanted to defend it from ‘those idiots in the ALF’.

These arguments present the ALF as the biggest, baddest threat to science and progress, and suggest that at least part of the motivation behind the demo was the politics of fear and the desire to be left alone. In truth, the ALF is a tiny and pretty insignificant gang; they are nasty pieces of work, no doubt, but they are by no stretch of the imagination a threat to civilised society. SPEAK, the main animals rights group that has been protesting against the Oxford lab, and which distances itself from the ALF, is also of little consequence. Rather, these groups feed off a much broader, top-down doubt and uncertainty about animal testing today, and scientific inquiry itself; the reason they have been able to dominate, thus far, the debate about animal research is not because they are strong or powerful or especially disruptive, but because government ministers, Oxford dons and even scientists have remained silent on the issue. ALF, SPEAK and others sound loud only because everyone else has remained quiet; they are parasitical on society’s own caginess about scientific endeavour and its self-loathing for human achievement; they are a symptom of a problem, not its cause.

Consider, again, the issue of primate experimentation. It is widely assumed that the reason why Cambridge University shelved, in January 2004, its plans to build a world-class primate research centre is because of the antics of animal rights activists. No doubt the activists’ constant protesting and threats had an impact on those involved in the project, from the builders to the scientists, but it is much more likely to have been official dithering about the worth of primate research that put paid to the Cambridge project. The government failed publicly to support the research institution until it was too late; research on great apes (chimps, gorillas and orang-utans) was banned in 1986, under the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act; and the Animals Procedure Committee, which advises the home secretary on matters relating to the Animals Act, says it has the goal of ‘minimising and eventually eliminating primate use and suffering’. So presumably it was opposed to, or at least uncertain about, the building of the Cambridge facility. This is the real problem: not a handful of big-mouthed animal-lovers in anoraks, but a defensiveness about research at the heart of government and the scientific establishment itself. Such equivocation effectively gives a green light to SPEAK and others to continue shouting outside various labs about the allegedly dodgy things going on inside.

Not surprisingly, many in the media latched on to the story about students standing up to wicked fanatics in preference of the bigger story about the defence of progress against misanthropy. So since Saturday, various commentators have suddenly discovered that they, too, are in favour of animal testing (having kept a studious silence on the issue during the past two years). And they outlined their position in opposition to the actions of animal rights activists. In a nutshell: ‘I am so progressive in contrast to those balaclava-wearing ALF types.’ But defining your defence of progress by posturing against the ALF is little different, or better, than the way Western politicians define their defence of democracy and civilisation today by posturing against that ragbag of deluded nihilists that is al-Qaeda. It is a flimsy attachment to civilisation that needs to big up bin Laden as a great threat, and it is a flimsy belief in progress that has to point the finger at the ALF in order to appear committed and convincing. Even the very positive aspects of Saturday’s demo have been transformed, by the media, into a lesson in fear and loathing, or even depicted as part of the ‘war on terror’ itself. This shows how progressive actions can sometimes be buried beneath the broader fearful and misanthropic outlook.

Saturday’s demo was a very good start in the battle to defend scientific research against its many critics. I certainly felt invigorated by it. It struck me that the march represented an attempt by young people to define themselves as progressive and humanist in the absence of traditional political roadmaps of the left or right variety. Indeed, the left was noteable by its absence. As I argue in this week’s New Statesman, where normally SWP placards cluster around the merest sneeze of public protest and left-wing newspaper sellers bicker on the sidelines of every march about whose position is most correct, Saturday’s demo was a ‘left-free zone’ (2).

If anything, the old left was on the wrong side of the barricade, amid the anti-testing gathering. The difference between the two demos was striking. The anti-testing demo was made up of world-weary individuals of a certain age (many in their forties and fifties) who carried banners that spoke of cynicism and conspiracy theories about science, and humanity in general. One said: ‘We live in a world of deceit: don’t believe the scientists’ lies.’ The pro-testing demo, by contrast, felt positive and lively; it was made up mostly of young people who were pro-science and research. It was hard to resist the interpretation that the anti-testing demo provided a snapshot of the old left drowning in a sea of cynicism and moral relativism, while the pro-testing demo was something new and different, an attempt by youth in a post-political age to kick against some of the backward trends of our time.

Yet, while these new protesters may not be susceptible to the old preoccupations and prejudices of the radical left, they are, like all of us, open to being influenced by today’s politics of fear and victimhood and even by some of the doubt about launching an all-out defence of animal research. This means hard arguments must be had out. As Mick Hume says, the battle over animal testing is one of the most divisive issues today, ‘drawing new lines in the political and cultural sands’ between those who endorse a human-centred morality and those who do not (see Animal testing: Qui vive?, by Mick Hume). Let us not let it become a clash between science students seeking a quiet life and allegedly evil terrorists, and recognise that there are bigger beasts to slay than a handful of miserabilists who turn up to Oxford every week to shout at scientists.

Visit Brendan O’Neill’s website here.

Read on:

The hard arguments about vivisection, by Stuart Derbyshire

Speciesism: a beastly concept, by Josie Appleton

(1) Fight us and you’ll lose, ALF, Sunday Times, 5 February 2006

(2) That Oxford protest: where was the left?, Brendan O’Neill, New Statesman, 6 March 2006

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Topics Politics


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