Animal research: extremists are not the problem

Tony Blair has signed up against anti-vivisection agitators - but that is not the same thing as signing up for vivisection.

James Panton

Topics Science & Tech

In a letter published in the Sunday Telegraph at the weekend, UK prime minister Tony Blair announced his decision to sign the People’s Petition, the online petition that aims to give voice to the ‘silent majority’ in defence of vivisection (1). Pointing out that signing a public petition is a rare act for a government minister, Blair explained that it is ‘a sign of just how important I believe it is that as many people as possible stand up against the tiny group of extremists threatening medical research and advances in this country’ (2).

The trouble with this is that the real threat to medical research and advances is not ‘a tiny group of extremists’, but an unwillingness on the part of government ministers to make the moral arguments for vivisection. The extremists merely feed off the authorities’ defensiveness.

Blair’s letter comes in the wake of public and media outrage about the activities of animal rights extremists. Last week, four animal rights activists were sentenced to 12 years’ imprisonment for conspiracy to blackmail the owners of Darly Oaks farm in Staffordshire, which bred guinea pigs for medical research. Their campaign against the farm culminated in the theft of the body of Gladys Hammond from her grave in October 2004.

Earlier last week, GlaxoSmithKline (GSK), whose subsidiaries are engaged in vivisection, won a High Court injunction prohibiting animal rights activists from carrying out their threat to publish the names and addresses of its shareholders on the internet unless they sell their shares (3). In his letter in the Sunday Telegraph, Blair outlined his support for the Company Law Reform Bill, which will allow company directors to keep their home addresses private, and his intention for further government consultation on the possibility of exempting companies from making their shareholder details public (4).

Of course, it may be the case that Blair’s sudden endorsement of the People’s Petition is an opportunistic manoeuvre to distract attention from his current crises. With the news full of stories of animal rights activists intimidating shareholders and digging up corpses, who would disagree with Blair’s stance against such degraded and misanthropic behaviour?

Well, me for one. I have no sympathy with animal rights activists, but I think that more laws will do little to defeat their arguments. The authorities are using draconian measures to substitute for a decent moral argument in defence of animal research. In the absence of offering a moral justification for vivisection they instead clamp down heavily on the anti-vivisectionists. Blair promises new measures to restrict the
actions of animal rights extremists rather than standing up and saying animal research is crucially important and must continue. They use the law to create the impression of being tough on anti-vivisectionists because they seem to lack the words – or the guts – to defend vivisection.

The animal rights activists’ tactic of ‘naming and shaming’ GSK shareholders depends upon the assumption that these shareholders should be ashamed of their association with a company that supports vivisection. As I have argued elsewhere on spiked, anonymity can only serve to heighten a climate of fear in which a tiny minority of animal rights extremists dictate the agenda (see
Stand up for animal research). And by introducing legislation to allow company directors and shareholders anonymity, we encourage the idea that support for vivisection is something to be ashamed of.

The only way to beat these misanthropes is to stand up and be counted. Shareholders in GSK, and supporters of the People’s Petition, should be proud of their support for vivisection. The Pro-Test committee, on which I sit, has bought 10 shares in GSK as a symbolic gesture of solidarity with its shareholders (5), to demonstrate that we are not intimidated.

Unfortunately, major institutional investors in GSK and other companies engaged in vivisection have responded differently. In a letter published in the Financial Times, ABP Investments et al explained that ‘While we understand the genuine concerns of animal welfare groups and support moves to reduce, refine and replace the use of animals in medicines research, there is no place for violence and intimidation in this process. Opposition to the law should be played out in the appropriate venue rather than through intimidation of the more vulnerable. Government has made clear its support in this area and it must continue to commit resources to protect the victims of such campaigns, in this case small shareholders.’ (6)

It’s only extremists’ tactics, not their arguments, that are taken up here. This concedes way too much. If the use of animals in scientific research needs to be reduced, refined and replaced, this suggests that it is a morally problematic process – something we can accept for reasons of necessity at present, but which we must work hard to make unnecessary in the future (See Vivisection: Put human welfare first). The letter in the FT pretty much says: we share the concerns about animal testing but we don’t think violence is the way to reduce animal testing.

The harsh sentences handed out to the grave-robbing activists also amount to an avoidance of the real issue. Jon Ablewhite, John Smith and Kerry Whitburn were each sentenced to 12 years in prison for conspiracy to blackmail the owners of Darly Oaks farm. As a vocal opponent of the anti-vivisection movement, I’m delighted they were caught and punished – for their criminal acts, not their beliefs. I am worried, however, that the sentences are being used as an excuse to close down debate around vivisection.

The 12-year custodial sentences are draconian. To put things in perspective, the government’s sentencing guidelines propose 12 years for an individual found guilty of manslaughter in response to a low degree of provocation (7); while a 40-year-old man was recently sentenced to a minimum tariff of six years after being found guilty of raping a 12-week-old baby (8). According to Detective Chief Inspector Nick Baker, who headed up the Darly Oaks farm case, the ‘lengthy sentences send a strong message to people who might be considering doing anything similar. While lawful protestors have nothing to fear, single issue extremists will be caught and strongly punished for their offences’ (9).

The act of digging up a corpse demonstrates these individuals’ low view of human beings, but unfortunately this misanthropic worldview isn’t limited to a handful of cranks. It is a belief that underpins the sentiment that vivisection is something we should be ashamed of. It is expressed by the entire spectrum of animal rights campaigners and anti-vivisectionists, who value animal life over attempts to improve the human condition.

Those of us who support vivisection need to realise that the real problem is not a minority of extremists. The problem is that we live in a society that refuses to recognise the moral good of research on animals. We need to win the argument for vivisection in the court of public opinion – and we need to argue against a climate of misanthropy in which animal experiments are seen at best as unfortunate, and at worse, as shameful and cruel.

The imposition of draconian sentences for acts of conspiracy to blackmail and grave-robbing could discourage a few individuals from committing crimes in the name of animal rights. But they are just as likely to lead to these individuals being transformed from cranks into martyrs for those who support them.

Even if the threats of violence from the extremist fringe of the anti-vivisection brigade were to stop tomorrow, opposition to vivisection would remain just as strong. By continually defining themselves against animal rights extremism, rather than for animal research, government, universities and scientists are refusing to engage in the difficult arguments about humanity and progress today.

James Panton lectures in politics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford. He is a co-founder of the Manifesto Club and a member of the Pro-Test steering committee. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not represent the views or policies of Pro-Test.

(1) People’s Petition

(2) Tony Blair: Time to act against animal rights protesters, Sunday Telegraph, 14 May 2006

(3) GSK wins injunction against extremists, Financial Times, 10 May 2006

(4) Tony Blair: Time to act against animal rights protesters, Sunday Telegraph, 14 May 2006

(5) Pro-Test in Solidarity with GSK Shareholders, Pro-Test

(6) We give full backing to GSK’s bullied shareholders, Financial Times, 13 May 2006

(7) Manslaughter by reason of provocation, Sentencing Guidelines Council

(8) Rape jail term decision on hold, BBC News, 2 May 2006

(9) Four jailed in grave-theft case, BBC News, 11 May 2006

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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