Time to stop monkeying around

One supporter of vivisection says a BBC documentary revealed the benefits of animal research - and the need for tough arguments to defend it.

James Panton

Topics Science & Tech

Adam Wishart’s documentary Monkeys, Rats and Me: Animal Testing – which aired on BBC 2 last night – was a serious attempt to get to grips with the debate about the building of Oxford University’s Biomedical Research Facility. Wishart explored whether research involving animals can be ethically justified.

The documentary focused on pro-vivisectionists’ misconceived idea that animal rights activists are the main obstacle to winning more positive support for animal-based research. So a large part of the programme was devoted to the activities of SPEAK, the anti-vivisection campaign group that demonstrates in Oxford, and its leader Mel Broughton.

On the other side was Laurie Pycroft, who founded Pro-Test, the pro-vivisection campaign group in Oxford earlier this year aged just 16, and Professor Tipu Aziz, the Oxford-based neurosurgeon whose research into mobility disorders, including Parkinson’s disease, involves experimenting on monkeys.

Aziz is a hugely compelling individual, one of a tiny handful of vivisectionists who are unapologetic about their research. He has risked the wrath of anti-vivisectionists for many years. Asked on camera whether he ever feared for his life, Aziz said, ‘Yeah. But sometimes there are things that one just has to do.’ His work is hugely important. As a result of his research involving experiments on 100 monkeys, there has been an alleviation of Parkinsonian mobility symptoms in over 40,000 people around the world.

The film introduced us to one of Aziz’s current patients, a teenager who was wheelchair-bound, unable to feed himself or to function well without the constant attention of his mother. Early in the film, the teenager was asked what he thought of animal experimentation. ‘It’s sick’, he said. Six weeks after neurosurgery in Aziz’s operating theatre, the transformation was remarkable: although still in a wheelchair, he had regained some use of his limbs and could sit up straight on his own. And further improvements in his condition are expected. Not surprisingly, by the end of the film the teenager had changed his mind about animal experimentation.

It was a powerful and emotive story, a reminder that animal-based medical research has been essential in developing major drugs and therapeutic technologies over the past century. But the programme also showed that we need to win some tougher debates about the ethics of animal research.

Anti-vivisectionists like Mel Broughton do not represent large numbers of people, nor do they wield much power. Instead they are sustained by, and they feed off, a broader sense of misanthropy today, and doubt about human achievement – and surely it is that underlying problem which we need to address? In the film, Broughton described Christmas as a ‘festival of death’ and said he rejects friendships with anyone who eats meat. Effectively, he is only the figurehead of today’s morally confused and anti-human climate.

And yet, Broughton was left to make the important political arguments for democracy and the right to protest. Broughton was shown telling a crowd of people that if the watching police suspected him of attempting to incite them, then that was exactly his intention: to ‘incite’ the crowd to bring an end to the ‘torture and suffering’ of animals in research laboratories. As a result of these words, his march was re-routed by the police without warning. It powerfully illustrated that, today, trying to win people over by strong arguments has effectively become a criminal offence. The case in support of vivisection cannot be won by restricting our opponents’ right to free speech. That way we only avoid the argument, instead of having it out. The film revealed that those of us who support vivisection need to challenge the anti-progress culture from which anti-vivisectionism springs.

James Panton is lecturer in politics at St John’s College, Oxford. He was involved in the founding of Pro-Test, and remains a committed supporter of vivisection. His edited book, Science vs Superstition: The Case for a New Scientific Enlightenment, is launched by Policy Exchange on 6 December 2006. For more information email {encode=”” title=””}.

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Topics Science & Tech


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