The British Government is Speaking of Research

Animal Rights groups are getting smart in their attempt to influence policy in the United Kingdom. The BUAV (British Union for the Abolition Vivisection) already have a collection of “pet” MPs who they use to create EDMs and put their signatures to letters in local newspapers. On the 5th February 2013 they convinced the Conservative MP, Henry Smith, to introduce a debate to the House of Commons on the subject of animal experiments.

Henry Smith MP animal rights
Henry Smith MP (left) with Russell Whiting from the BUAV (right)

Mentioning the BUAV pretty quickly in his opening remarks, Smith spoke about the current coalition government pledge to reduce the numbers of animal in research (in accordance with the 3Rs), to end testing on household products and the implementation of the new EU directive.

Smith went on to call for a ban on the import of primates, which account for 47% of primates used. This reflects the BUAV (and others) campaign to force airlines not to transport primates.  He also made calls to further drive the 3Rs within research – something most scientists would agree with.

Kerry McCarthy, a Labour MP also frequently found in BUAV press releases, followed on from Smith, questioning many of the Government’s policies before bringing all of animal research into question. McCarthy showed her scientific inexperience when she asserted:

An experiment at Cardiff university, for example, which involved sewing up the eyelids of newborn kittens had already been done elsewhere; it had turned out to be fruitless in finding a cure for lazy eye in children.

Sadly, McCarthy’s belief that the Cardiff experiments were a duplication of Blakemore’s earlier experiments is incorrect (this is not the first time such accusations have been made by animal rights groups). Cardiff was focused on how gene expression leads to functional blindness whereas Blakemore’s research was focused on brain elasticity. McCarthy’s comment also shows a misunderstanding of the development process – scientists must understand a disease before they can treat it.

After input from several other MPs, Mark Harper MP (Conservative) – who represents the Government on this issue – came in to establish the view of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government:

The position of both coalition parties—I think it is shared on both sides of the House—is that we should license the use of animals only when it is essential and when there is no alternative. That is, indeed, Government policy, and it was the policy of the previous Government.

Mark Harper MP
Mark Harper MP

He continued on:

At the same time, animal experiments continue, at the moment, to be necessary if improvements in health care are to be developed with the minimum of delay. It is a fact that our national health service would be unable to function effectively were it not for the availability of medicines and treatments that have been developed and tested through research using animals. Almost every form of conventional medical treatment has relied in part on the study of animals. That includes asthma treatments and medicines for ulcers, schizophrenia and depression, polio vaccine, and kidney dialysis and transplants—those are just a few examples.

While we accept that animal experiments are effective and necessary, they should be used only when the benefits have been carefully weighed against the costs to the animals; when there is no other way of achieving the desired result; when the procedures applied to the animals will cause the least suffering possible; when the minimum number of animals will be used to achieve the outcome; and when high standards of animal welfare are applied. That approach closely reflects what the public want. They understand the necessity and importance of using animal experiments in some areas, but they want the number of such experiments to be the minimum necessary.

It is very reassuring to see the Government providing a clear message on why animal research is important to medicine. Harper also dealt effectively with the calls to arbitrarily reduce the numbers of animals used in research. It is  important for Reduction to be seen in the context of individual projects, rather than over all of research.

Of course, the quickest way to reduce the number of animals would be to drive the work overseas, which would not be good for the United Kingdom, for jobs or for animal welfare. We must be thoughtful about the numbers. We should consider the size of the industry and the work that is being carried out, and whether we are driving down the proportion of animals being used in that work.

Harper restated the Coalition’s commitment to the 3Rs as well as pointing out that no licenses had been given out in 2011 for household product testing using animals.

The full transcription of the debate can be found on “They Work For You”.

Overall it was reassuring to see the Government stand firmly in defence of the use of animals for medical research. It was also important they continue to take a strong stance in maintaining high standards of animal welfare.

Speaking of Research