Animal Testing. Is it really a polarised debate?

I was recently contacted by a student who had an assignment to report both sides of a contentious issue, and she’d chosen animal research.

To her, there were two sides to the debate – a simple yes or no to research. Yet, as I explained to her, it is not a genuinely two-sided argument.

To understand why, we need to look at the basis of the hardline anti-vivisection viewpoint that no animal should be used in an experiment. This is the position taken by most animal rights groups around the world, from PETA and the National Antivivisection Society, to Cruelty Free International and Animal Aid. The polar opposite of this viewpoint is that animals should always be used in experiments, yet this is never what has been argued by those in favour of experiments in the UK.

Are debates like this really between polar opposites?

Are debates like this really between polar opposites?

To understand the history of the issue, animal research really kicked off in the mid to late 1800s. In 1875, there was a Royal Commission which examined the necessity of using animals, at which scientists including one Charles Darwin gave evidence.

In 1876, on the basis of the Royal Commission, Parliament passed the Cruelty to Animals Act, 1876, which demanded that all researchers using animals, as well as each experiment, must be licensed.. There were relatively few experiments even proposed at the time, so the President of the Royal Society was asked to justify the scientific validity of each one. Special protections were afforded to dogs, cats, primates and horses which ensured that they could not be used if another species would suffice.

As time has gone on, the law around animal research has been tightened and finessed. In 1986, the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act made it explicit that animals could not be used if there was an alternative method and in 1998 it became illegal to test cosmetics or their ingredients.

Still, however, the principal of only allowing research conditionally remained at the heart of UK animal research. In order to conduct an animal experiment, researchers need a series of licenses from the Home Office. The experiment has to pass two tiers of ethical review and prove why there is no alternative to using an animal.

If we were to transpose this ethical review system for experimentsto using animals for food we would say ‘it can be ethical for a person to eat a chicken if, for instance, they are malnourished’. Each person who was hungry would have to apply to eat the chicken, explaining also why they couldn’t eat anything else, and their application would be considered by an ethics committee before being rubber-stamped by the Home Secretary.

The key thing here is that this system is different from saying ‘it is always acceptable to use an animal’, which is the polar opposite viewpoint of ‘it is never acceptable to use an animal’.

The ethical difficulty of saying that it is never acceptable to use an animal is that it underplays the value of human and animal medicines which have derived from animal experiments. Indeed, some campaigners wilfully attempt to rewrite medical history to remove the role of animals from key discoveries, but how could you remove dogs from the discovery of insulin? How do you make a drug based on a mouse hormone without a mouse?

Individuals can be against all animal experiments if they want, but they have to acknowledge the harms associated with their worldview. It is similar to anti-vaxxers: it’s your lookout if you don’t want to vaccinate your child, but let’s be clear that you are placing them and others at risk.

Researchers are motivated to act because the victims of disease are not hypothetical. They are the children on the wards of Great Ormond Street hospital, they are people dying in sub-Saharan Africa, they are wild animals, they are your pets, they are your family. The suffering is already happening. Standing idly by and watching them suffer is not a kindness, it’s a negligence.

There are other important subtleties which are lost with a simplistic yes/no approach to animal research. For instance, what do we mean when we say ‘research’? Are we talking about brain surgery, or a blood sample? We know, for example, that some 27% of experiments are below the threshold for suffering; so have suffered less than if they’d received an injection. The degree of suffering is essential to judging the value of an experiment as the costs relative to the benefits are essential to determining value. If I’m offered a ‘procedure’ by a doctor, I’m going to need to know if we’re talking about a blood test or an amputation before deciding whether to go ahead with it.

I think it was worth using animals to develop the badger TB vaccine and the vaccines I give my cat. I think it is worth using a mouse to make a breast cancer drug, because I think the tens of thousands of women who are diagnosed with the condition every year are capable of suffering in ways the mouse cannot. For example, they may be consumed by worry for their children, whereas mice are liable to consume their children. The woman and the mouse are not morally equal except by the most superficial of measures.

However, I want to know that each experiment has gone through rigorous ethical review. I want to know that it is worthwhile. If it is not, I, somebody who is notionally ‘for’ animal research, would agree with those opposed to it. This can only means one thing – the definition of ‘against’ animal research is correct, but the definition of someone ‘for’ it is lacking. Those who identify as being against animal research are generally against all animal experiments. Those who identify as supporting animal experiments are generally only supportive given strict conditions (based on regulation, purpose etc).

I also want to see alternatives to animals testing and research continue to be developed. Animals may well be the best model we have for many bits of research, but I want better. So should you. These would have the potential to be cheaper, and even more reliable.

It’s true that there’s little dialogue between the biomedical community and the now established anti-research lobby and this isn’t surprising since they are effectively having different conversations. The biomedical community is figuring out how to improve animal welfare and is engaged in an ongoing harm/benefit debate. The demands of those opposed to animal research are effectively too uncompromising, too unreasonable, too damaging to the public good to be accommodated.

Their policy asks are all about banning research, which merely sends it abroad (often to places with lower regulatory standards), rather than doubling down on developing alternatives to animal studies which will be the only realistic way to reduce the overall number of animals used in research.

So are pro-research and anti-vivisection viewpoints, polar opposites?

Animal Rights perspectivesNo. The research community is supportive of measures to improve animal welfare while recognising the importance of balancing it with the needs of those suffering from disease worldwide.

Indeed agreement between researchers and the animal rights movement can be found through investment and development of alternative technologies, while accepting that some animals will continue to be needed in the foreseeable future. If only we could focus on that, instead of engaging in a public bun fight between two sectors which aren’t even having the same conversation.


16 responses to “Animal Testing. Is it really a polarised debate?

  1. “Individuals can be against all animal experiments if they want, but they have to acknowledge the harms associated with their worldview. It is similar to anti-vaxxers: it’s your lookout if you don’t want to vaccinate your child, but let’s be clear that you are placing them and others at risk.”

    This is not a fair comparison. Contempt for anti-vaxers is really about their ignorance. Refusing to vaccinate your child is in fact harmful to your child, and many other people, and is grounded in fiction.

    Those who oppose animal-experimentation – specifically People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, as long as we’re naming them – oppose indisputable, mortal harms to non-human animals. Whereas the anti-vaxer’s kid would IN FACT not be harmed by vaccines, contrary to their position, there is NO DOUBT that the subjects of nearly all medical experiments on animals are harmed by their participation therein. If for no other reason, they are almost unanimously euthanized at some point during the experimenting.

    You are right that a blanket ban on animal experiments would place others at risk, since others might benefit from the results of said experiments. But whereas anti-vaxers willfully burden society with that risk to protect only their child, animal advocates would burden human beings with that risk to protect enormously many non-humans from mortal harm.

    The anti-vaxer is thus not only ignorant, but clearly selfish, and narrow-minded. The opponent of animal testing is not clearly any of those.

  2. But I think it is supremely difficult. Your point is based on logic, but most animal rights believers are strangers to logic, and rely on extensive rationalizations instead. Example: I have an acquaintance who is a vegan, the rabbit specialist at our local humane society. One day she was waiting for her husband at my office while he was meeting with the partners. I was gone for the day, so my assistant was trying to make conversation while she waited. “You like dogs?” he asked? “Yes, I love dogs.” So he showed her some photos of my dogs that were on my desk. She commented on the dogs, the attractive scenery, and asked where they were taken. “At a hunt test at a beagle club” he said. She screeched, and dropped the photos on the floor in horror! While my confused assistant tried to explain how the rabbits at the hunt test were never killed or chased, were only tracked, she wasn’t calmed at all. So he explained how the bunnies are protected from predators, fed, had parasite prevention and special yummy plants planted for them, and realized he was only getting in deeper trouble with her. What finally dawned on him was that it was the FENCE that upset her so terribly. The fence. And to talk more about rationalization instead of rationality, you should know that her husband was our company’s client, and his job was marketing director for our state’s largest – ahem – meat packing company. He made a good living at a slaughterhouse so that she could stay at home to care for terminally ill domestic rabbits, diabetic rabbits, old rabbits that the humane society couldn’t find homes for . . . I don’t think it’s possible to find a way to bridge that gap between feellings and emotions and science. If you do, I’d love to hear about it.

    • I don’t know if I would describe “most animal rights believers” as being stranger’s to logic. Proponents of pre-eminent non-human animal advocacy groups like Mercy for Animals, F.A.R.M., Vegan Outreach, and Farm Sanctuary endorse consequentialist reasons for abolishing animal use. Fledgling philosophers (and the media) often criticize consequentialism as being TOO calculating, mathematical, and impersonal about value. Certainly some of philosophy’s best-regarded champions – Peter Singer, John Stuart Mill, and Jeremy Bentham – were animal activists to varying degrees, and many advocates non-human animals take them as inspiration.

      Though of course you’re right, there is enormous, wide-spread hypocrisy about which animals deserve mercy or consideration, as well as what they deserve protection from. The American worship of dogs over pigs, or of cats over rats, are both morally unfounded. There is no plausible reason for the butcher, torment, and misery of one to be acceptable, and not the other.

  3. An excellent, well-reasoned piece – which will have little effect on the animal rights contingent. Thinking with the heart rather than with the head is what they do, so to convince, we must provide arguments that allow them to come to the reasonable conclusion – in favor of limited animal research – through their hearts.

    If we are to change the discussion, animal researchers must stand up en mass and reveal themselves as the compassionate animal lovers that they are. The benefits of animal research must be explained in a way that someone who thinks with their heart, not with their head, can understand and support.

    This is not difficult – we have both the facts AND the emotional, humanistic justification on our side. Emotional rationales do not come naturally to many scientists, but we have to stop being so reticent and clinical in the way we respond to activists. We can change the whole discussion if we just stop hiding and reveal ourselves as compassionate human beings who are doing this for all the right reasons.

    • Can you expand on what you’d like the scientific community to convince the animal rights contingent of? Certainly total abolition of animal use is a dramatic position. Indeed – total abstinence from any kind of harm is a dramatic position. Most people would condemn human infanticide, but would struggle to justify the ban if a single child’s death could mean the cure to breast cancer.

      That said, surely you’d agree that the current and historical balancing of human concerns against those of non-human animals is pretty egregious. A study conducted on rats earlier this year may help many human combat veterans regain their sight. That study involved firing shrapnel into hundreds of rats eyes to better understand the kind of trauma induced by explosions. Apart from being enormously painful, and frightening, the rats were unanimously euthanized after the allowed number of surgeries, each of which involved their own physical and emotional burden.

      There is no doubt that the results of the experiment will be very beneficial to humans, and hopefully other animals. But it’s not overly emotional or trivial to question how the enormous price paid unwillingly by rats, in very large numbers, compares with the price paid willingly by humans in service of a cause. Certainly the study did not, and will not, benefit rats. That a study will directly benefit its participants is a common pre-requisite of any human medical testing. To my knowledge, that conditions is never required for animal testing, but I would stand very gladly corrected.

      If anything, I’d guess the emotional, irrational position is the one weighted in favor of human interests. After all, it’s humans making all the gains. It’s humans that would suffer the most from foregoing the experiments (assuming for the sake of argument that animal experimentation is likely to produce the results we expect of it). That explanation fits neatly with our understanding of human psychology, and has enormous predictive power.

  4. Paul Töbelmann

    The media tend to like their good-vs-evil stories better than the ones in which they have to differentiate. And let’s face it, differentiation isn’t exactly in most animal rights proponents’ job description. And where do 99% of the population get their info on animal research? Hell, would they bother differentiating unless it was about themselves? Humans simply don’t like to spend the time and effort involved in differentiation, and so long as that remains as it is, scientists will have more difficulty communicating than many other groups.

  5. To those on the animal rights end of the spectrum, I say: should we not kill mosquitoes (which are animals) to reduce the health burdens of malaria to humans? Or are animals with an exoskeleton excluded from ethical consideration? The ethical argument against “harming” animals for human benefit makes no sense if carried to its logical conclusion. What the author is saying is that the proponents of animal research are generally not at the other extreme end of the range, but are in fact much more moderate than generally perceived by the public.

    • If we are killing mosquitoes in service of overall lesser suffering in the world, that’s not necessarily inconsistent with the view held by many advocates for non-human animals. But I don’t think it “makes no sense” to seriously question the moral worth of mosquitoes, compared with other sentient creatures.

      It may turn out that mosquitoes are some kind of Cartesian automaton, in which case of course their lives would be forfeit to the lives of humans. But it is not nonsensical to wonder how mosquitoes add up, if they truly can have interests and desires, or experience fear and suffering. I wouldn’t wager that any single mosquito is the moral equal of any single human. But that’s not the case is it? Many thousands, or tens of thousands of mosquitoes are killed in the interest of human populations smaller by orders of magnitude. You might in the end find in favor of human interests, but that does not make the question nonsense.

      Indeed, you can start to motivate the question by first comparing other non-human animals to each other. Is it worth saving a cat if ten dogs would die? Is it worth killing a spider to spare a hundred flies? It may seem like an absurd game at first, but in the end these are exactly the sorts of questions we ask all the time when we pass judgment on the scientific worth of some animal experiment.

  6. Andreas Kastelholm

    You ignored the most relevant animal: humans. Why not carry out all research on those who want research? The women with breast-cancer, if they feel that a sacrifice is worth it, they should not be held above the sacrifice by some ancient views of human superiority. In current scientific understanding, the human animal is most moral when it spares others of suffering, and deals with its own consequences.

    • You’re confused. The breast cancer drug is made from a mouse hormone. The human breast cancer patient does not produce mouse hormones. Mice do. So you need a mouse. Of course, once they made the drug from a mouse hormone they did test it on humans.

      • I think this is a little uncharitable. You’re right that mouse-particular solution could only have arisen from experiments involving mice. But I think Andreas’ point was really that we employ an unfair double-standard when deciding subjects for medical experiments.

        Many experiments that we would consider horrifying and obviously unethical if conducted on humans would pass the ethics board if conducted on cats or rabbits, even when both tests are in service of the same goal.

        Obviously there are cognitive and social differences that matter when weighing whether we will experiment on rabbits rather than human women. Our unique psychology may entail that the human suffering comes greater, and our social structure might spread a human’s suffering to their family and friends in a way that a rabbit’s suffering would not.

        Yet you have to admit, some skepticism is understandable in a world where animals are routinely tormented, brutally maimed and killed, even to the point of mass extinction, for such trivialities as fashionable food, clothing, and trinkets. Unless the governing body is abstinent of all such trivial animal products, it seems fair to squint one’s eyes at the ethics board verdicts. It is painfully easy to distort the experience of non-human animals in the service of human interests. Ethology was born gasping for air out of a scientific community that had willfully covered its ears for decades, or centuries.

  7. This is very rational and very much missing the point. Regulations don’t mean much unless they are free of corruption by no eked interests. Your scheme might work in a rational bubble but unless you also present a analysis of real world corruption of regulations and how that can be overcome you won’t win over people familiar with this issue.

    • Elivis IS Bigfoot

      You heard it here first folks – Charles Darwin was in the employ of mouse breeders and big pharma years before either existed.

      • What? Are we talking about judging Darwin’s experiments posthumously or are we discussing present day policy for current and future research?

        Oh and government regulation is doing a great job neutral and functioning in the public interest, don’t worry everybody.

        You might want to check New England Journal of Medicine editor Marcia Angell to get a sense of how neutral and uncorrupt research is today…

        This is a serious discussion and deserves to be taken seriously.

  8. The bases for the non-permissive perspective are that ethical considerations to which we grant humans should be granted to animals and that animals are disadvantaged. To subject a “mentally inferior” being against their will resembles a moral corruption. However, it seems that this argument weakens when approached with your utilitarian (or is it your distinction in consciousness between humans and animals) considerations.