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The Bogus Animal Research Debate
In the last few weeks, I have been invited to speak in debates entitled: ‘This House would ban all forms of animal research?’ An animal advocate’s initial reaction to such a proposal might well be ‘great, we really need to discuss this critical ethical issue’, and in important ways that would be right. Indeed, the first part of my lecture on ‘Ethics, justice and animal research’ which I give at universities in Ireland deals with this ‘ideal’-level ethical argument.
However, as soon as I saw the motion wording my heart sank. To make a difference in the world, ideal ethical analysis must be supplemented by comprehension of the world as it is and the ‘opportunity structures’ for change. Otherwise it’s like trying to make a difficult, complicated journey without any navigation – ultimately futile.
As my new book, ‘The Politics of Animal Experimentation’ makes clear, since animal experimentation became a public policy issue in 1876, the prospects of achieving its abolition in the short-term have diminished from slim to negligible. That is not to denigrate the compelling ethical argument for the cessation of such practices insofar as they represent the knowing infliction of pain, suffering and harm on sentient individuals. Rather, it reflects the inescapable reality of the huge, historically entrenched power advantages enjoyed by animal research interests and the fact that, for better or worse, it has become a deeply institutionalised aspect of biomedical research. Change here is like turning the proverbial oil tanker.
Therefore, if the only option proposed for short-term practical change is abolition, then change is rendered unfeasible. This should be a matter of concern not only to anti-vivisectionists, but to the majority of the public for whom cruelty to animals involves, at least, significant ethical costs. Moreover, animal researchers’ protestations of commitment to the ‘Three Rs’ (e.g. House of Lords Report, p.37) – the reduction, refinement and replacement of animal experiments in order to minimise animal suffering – give the impression that the practice is deemed a source of moral regret even by those engaged in it. Consequently, a debate dominated by absolute and highly generalised positions is likely to obscure the questions which are of most practical relevance. This is critical because over the past fifteen years, the number of animal experiments likely to cause pain and distress in the UK has actually risen from 2.7 million in 1997 to over 4 million in 2012.
Harmful animal experimentation can only take place with public approval, granted on their behalf by the Government. Animal experimentation is not legally ‘normal’, instead it is a conditional privilege granted to researchers, exempting licensed procedures from anti-cruelty legislation. So this is fundamentally a social and political issue. Both the letter of the law and most members of the public judge animal experiments on a cost-benefit basis, rather than taking an all-or-nothing position. Thus, experiments perceived to have a direct life-saving impact on humans are tolerated, whereas experiments with lower perceived benefits are not (e.g. ComRes poll for BBC Radio 5 Live). By my reckoning, if Government policy just reflected public opinion and the rhetoric of the Government and animal research interests – hardly a radical approach, one would think – the number of experiments would be more than halved. This would signify an unprecedented leap forward for animal welfare protection – and democracy for that matter. Democratisation of animal experimentation is an ethical, feasible goal that is 131 years overdue.
Therefore, it is through attention to questions surrounding the severity of animal suffering and the manner in which such ‘costs’ inflicted on animals are compared with predicted benefits – and, crucially, who makes those policy decisions – that animal research can become publicly accountable and implemented in a way that honours the apparent consensus in favour of the reduction and eventual elimination of harm to animals. A majority of the public implicitly desire progressive change, but most polls indicate they would stop short of an immediate ban. So keeping the debate focused on the all-or-nothing question diverts attention from the real opportunities for positive change, and is likely to serve the interests of the most extreme vivisectionists.
So I wasn’t entirely surprised to discover who is behind these debates at universities across the UK. It turns out that they are part of a project called ‘The Big Animal Research Debate’ which is sponsored by the pro-animal experimentation lobby group now calling itself ‘Understanding Animal Research’ (UAR) – none of the major UK animal protection or anti-vivisection groups are involved. The problem here is that over the years I’ve had plenty of sincere debates with animal researchers who, while we disagree, are at least interested in trying to have a rational, open, honest discussion. Sadly, I’ve not found that possible with UAR and it seems to reflect an attitude across all the main animal experimentation institutions.
I spoke at a conference on animal research law in Newcastle in June 2012, and listened to a UAR speaker explaining how the organisation’s school talks manage to persuade students to change their minds to support animal experimentation. However, the speaker also was forced to admit that they themselves do not bring up the issue of the pain and suffering caused to animals by the experiments. Given that way of framing the debate tends to avoid the main ethical and legal consideration against an animal experimentation project, it is no wonder that students end up with a relatively rosy view of the practice. It’s certainly not a reliable path to truly understanding animal research!
But then, the ethical and political ramifications of animal harm in experimentation is something that animal research groups seem unwilling to address in a transparent manner. We invited major institutions involved in animal research – e.g. the research charities, the Medical Research Council, the pharmaceutical industry – to speak at and attend our seminar on the animal welfare implications of the new EU Directive. We recognise that these are powerful bodies and that, in reality, reducing and eliminating animal experiments is much more likely to happen with their buy-in. Given their talk of commitment to the 3Rs, how they want to minimise pain etc., you would think they would be keen to engage. Sadly not. A deafening silence.
I think the problem is that as soon as you drill down into the detail of what is really happening in animal experimentation, then it soon becomes apparent that the pro-animal research groups’ rhetoric about animal welfare lacks substance. I know individuals involved in animal research at various levels who are relatively conscientious, reflective and conflicted about the animal harm the practice causes. They should speak out because their lobbying representatives take a much more gung-ho approach which focusses on a cynical power battle with animal welfare advocates rather than the more reasonable and consensual approach that you would hope from professional scientists.
 Since the pro-vivisection interest group, the Association for the Advancement of Medicine by Research (the forerunner to the Research Defence Society, now called ‘Understanding Animal Research’), effectively captured the regulatory process from the Home Office in 1882.