The Speaker’s Corner Trust Debate

The Speakers’ Corner Trust  —  a charity organization that promotes free expression, public debate and active citizenship — recently organized a debate on the role of animals in research. Michelle Thew of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) debated Tom Holder of Speaking of Research.

In her opening remarks Ms. Thew compared the non-consensual experimentation on human beings, such as those performed by the Nazis, to the use of animals in medical research.  She stated:

The BUAV strenuously opposes such experiments. The fact that they may advance medical science (as they are much more likely to do than experiments on animals) is no justification. It is simply not fair on the victims.

In other words, the claim is that if experimenting on non-consensual humans is wrong, then it must be wrong to experiment on animals as well.  This is true only if one adheres to the view that there is no morally relevant difference between a mouse and a human.  This is a key difference between our respective ethical positions. We agree that most people believe that all living beings are worthy of moral consideration.  Animal rights activists insist, in addition, that we owe all living beings the same moral consideration as any human.

Tom Holder pointed out some obvious implications of the animal rights view, such as the obvious fact that given such moral equivalence, eating a salmon would be equally wrong as eating your neighbor’s child.  Given the vastly larger number of animals used as food versus those used in medical research one can only wonder why BUAV does not focus its efforts in abolishing animal food rather than trying to eliminate life-saving medical research.  As it turns out, there is no British Union for the Abolition of Animal Food, which only shows the moral confusion and upside-down priorities of animal activists.

Ms. Thew is of the deplorable opinion that scientists use animals in research merely “because we have to power to subjugate them.” To which Tom Holder responded:

We do not research using animals simply because we can. It is the human ability to empathise with others and to have the tools to confront disease by means of scientific research that calls for us to act in the face of so much suffering. It is a moral dilemma that must be confronted.

Animal rights activists like Ms. Thew believe that they have the moral upper hand and that it is those that experiment on animals that offer a moral justification.  Not so. Those that oppose the work must offer an ethical justification for not acting when we can.  As an example, if we can find a therapy for breast cancer using mice, why shouldn’t we?  Is it merely because they assert our moral concern for a mouse ought to be the same as that for a mother dying of cancer and her family?

The truth is that if opponents could make a convincing ethical argument against animal research then this is where the debate would stop.  Humankind would concede the work is unethical and it would stop — as it was the case for slavery.  But because their ethical argument fails, they decide to attack the science instead. Thus, in the second part of the debate Ms. Thew denies the past benefits of the research, deplores the use of animals to understand fundamental biological processes in basic research, declares the existence of alternatives to the work and the reluctance of scientists to use them (never mind that it is scientists that actually develop and promote them), and that many drugs fail in the course of development (as one would expect from the very  nature of scientific work).  In the words of Tom Holder

The BUAV seems to have constructed a grand conspiracy theory according to which pharmaceuticals, governments, scientists and the medical community are all conspiring to suppress the “truth” that animal research doesn’t work. Similarly, the findings of highly respected polling organisations like Gallup and Mori, both of which show the public firmly behind animal research, must be “selective” because they don’t meet BUAV’s expectations.

What’s the reality? Understanding disease is a complex challenge, but there is no denying that animal research has contributed immensely to alleviating the suffering of humans and animals alike.

BUAV’s mission states that their goal is to “create a world where nobody wants or believes we need to experiment on animals.”  We share their goal, but it is scientists who actually work to create a world where there will no longer be a scientific need for the use animals to advance medicine and human health. So please, start supporting our work instead of misleading the public, denying the science, and irresponsibly suggesting that we can suspend the work immediately without grave consequences which include much human and animal suffering.