Stand up for animal research

The online People’s Petition supporting vivisection is a bold and positive initiative. If only it didn’t offer supporters the option to remain anonymous.

James Panton

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The Coalition for Medical Progress launched ‘The People’s Petition’ on 20 April 2006, an online petition seeking to give voice to the ‘silent majority’ who support vivisection (1). It is a very positive step in the struggle against animal rights misanthropy. But in giving signatories the option of remaining anonymous, does the petition run the risk of undermining its own aims?

The petition is a bold attempt to demonstrate the degree of public support for vivisection, and to reorient the discussion about animal research around the views of this majority rather than the beliefs of a minority of animal rights activists. Supporters are asked to sign up to three statements:

‘1) I believe that medical research is essential for developing new medical and veterinary treatments. I understand that finding safe and effective treatments and medicines requires some studies using animals.

2) I believe that medical research using animals, carried out to the highest standards of care and welfare, and where there is no alternative available, should continue in the UK.

3) I believe that people involved in medical research using animals have a right to work and live without fear of intimidation or attack.’

The petition is already proving popular – at the time of writing, well over 12,500 people have signed up. This provides further evidence that much of the British public recognises that vivisection is both medically necessary and morally worthy. In 2005, a MORI poll suggested that 75 per cent of Britons support animal research for medical purposes (2). And on 25 February this year, nearly 1,000 people joined the student-led campaigning group that I’m involved in – Pro-Test – to march through Oxford in support of building the new Biomedical Research Facility (3). We expect an even higher turnout for the second Pro-Test demo in June.

However, unlike these protests, where people stand up publicly to be counted as defenders of animal research, the People’s Petition offers individuals the opportunity to ‘sign up in confidence’: ‘The People’s Petition is designed to protect your privacy. If you wish, you can sign up with just your first name and the town where you live. To prevent multiple sign-ups, and ensure the petition is credible, the site will record and securely store your unique IP address.’ (4)

In other words, you can sign up anonymously. Although many supporters have chosen to reveal their full name and whereabouts, others have opted for remaining anonymous. My concern is – might this option of anonymity take away from what is positive about the petition, and neuter the impact it could make?

For me, there are three reasons why those of us who support animal research should ask people to come out and join us. First, it demonstrates that a majority of British people are not uneasy or ambiguous about vivisection, but rather support it and recognise how important it is.

Second, such public support can help to nurture a climate in which animal research is celebrated rather than seen as something embarrassing or shameful. Already, following the emergence of Pro-Test, more scientists and university chancellors – who previously had remained largely silent about vivisection – are making positive public statements. Some scientists have started explaining more openly what their work entails, while universities are coming under pressure to support their staff’s important work and, by implication, the animal research some of their staff pursue. We await government ministers coming forth to support vivisection.

Third, public and open campaigning shows that we refuse to be cowed or dictated to by the tiny minority of animal rights extremists who have threatened scientists, pro-vivisection activists and even students and lecturers merely associated with Oxford University, where the new research facility is being built.

In asking people to sign a petition that allows anonymity, none of these aims is properly achieved. Offering individuals the option to remain unnamed could end up promoting rather than challenging the idea that we have something to fear from animal rights extremists. In fact, they are small in number and fairly insignificant; they dominate the debate about vivisection by default, exactly by feeding off the caution and uncertainty about animal research at the heart of the political and scientific establishments.

It is not difficult for animal rights extremists to scare a handful of scientists who feel isolated. It is far more difficult to scare them when hundreds and thousands of people come forward in support of their research. The more publicly and loudly we support the researchers, the more animal rights activists are exposed as representing a tiny minority of opinion. The choice of anonymity, rather than countering today’s climate of nervousness, might end up heightening it, by inadvertently encouraging people to think there is something potentially dangerous and undesirable about supporting animal research.

Also, from the point of view of democratic protest, a petition is an important tool precisely because it is a list of real people, prepared publicly to put their names to a set of demands or statement of support. It is the fact that these citizens feel strongly enough about the issue to add their names that gives a petition its strength and impact. The People’s Petition might be said to have more in common with an opinion poll than a political petition – it tells us something about the quantity of support for animal research, but not very much about the quality of support for it. There is a danger that, rather than expressing a mass, democratic sentiment, an anonymous petition expresses the wishes and fears of an unnamed, and thus unaccountable, group of people.

The real problem that pro-vivisectionists face is not small groups of extremists, but the ongoing silence of those in authority. Until scientists are able to come forward in public and be proud of their work, until universities are prepared to make public statements defending their researchers, and until our elected politicians stand up and make the moral argument for vivisection, the impression of vivisection will continue to be that it is, at best, an unfortunate necessity – at worse, something to be ashamed about, something best kept under wraps. We can challenge this central problem by refusing to keep our support for vivisection under wraps, and instead stating it loudly and proudly.

I, James Panton, am proud to proclaim that I support vivisection as an essential part of scientific progress and as an entirely moral, humanistic endeavour.

Who will join me?

James Panton is a lecturer in politics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. He is on the Pro-Test steering committee, and is a co-founder of the Manifesto Club, a new initiative to develop a humanist political agenda for the twenty-first century. Visit its website here.

(1) The People’s Petition

(2) Animal research petition launched, BBC News, 19 April 2006

(3) Animal research petition launched, BBC News, 19 April 2006

(4) The People’s Petition: About this site

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