Bans and borders: Switzerland’s referendum on animal research

February 11th 2022
Jeremy D. Bailoo, Allyson J. Bennett, Amanda Dettmer, Justin Varholick & Sangy Panicker

Switzerland is, for the fourth time, about to vote on the banning of animal testing. The previous three votes reflected a majority that were against the initiative: 1985 (70% against), 1992 (56% against) and 1993 (72% against).

The Swiss are able to call a vote because they participate in what is known as Direct Democracy where citizens and/or residents decide on policy initiatives without the use of legislative representatives as proxies. In this case one of the three options for referendums called the popular initiative was used. Those opposed to animal research submitted an initiative that called for a halt to all experiments on humans and animals as well as a ban on the import of products developed using such methods. The submission occured on March 18th, 2019 and is up for vote on February 13th 2022.

The Swiss National Science Foundation opposes this initative

What does this mean?

Switzerland has some of the strictest animal welfare laws in the world. It would be misleading, however, to equate the term strict with better. Consider that Switzerland also has strict voting laws, with women gaining  the right to vote in 1971; ~50 years ago! (And, for reference, decades after other countries, including nearly 80 years after New Zealand and 30 years after the US.)

In both examples, strict clearly does not mean better but is more appropriately defined as restrictive. And, in both cases, harmful to the communities affected by the restriction. The same argument in regards to the ban on animal testing can be made here, with the proposed ban not being synonymous with “better”, but rather with “restrictive”.

For Switzerland, this would mean that the country would be cut off from global scientific advances and medical progress, with significant consequences on the health of humans and other animals. For example, if this vote had passed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020, Switzerland would be exempt from receiving the life saving vaccines that were developed as a consequence of decades of animal research. Similarly, the vote could mean that therapeutics used to treat animals in other settings, such as on farms and via veterinary care for pets, would also be prohibited

Such restrictions passed in one country can also spread to other countries. Take for example, the banning of the burqa by France in 2011, which further marginalized Muslims. Switzerland, The Netherlands, Sri Lanka, Belgium, China, Austria and Bulgaria consequently followed suit. Freedom of religion and belief is guaranteed under Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and the United Nations Human Rights Committee, UN Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Religion or Belief, and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR) have all labeled this ban as discriminatory and incompatible with international law—yet that ban persists.

Likely outcomes?

Unsurprisingly, the Swiss National Science Foundation as well as the Federal Council and Parliament of Switzerland are both opposed to this popular initiative, and like the previous three votes, this initiative is predicted to fail.

Traslated from here.

Importantly, and arguably, the dissent of both the Swiss Government as well the leading body of Swiss scientific experts to this popular initiative, highlights the necessary role of increased transparency and advocacy that is needed within Switzerland to highlight the vital role that animal research plays in our day to day lives.

Why does this matter?

At first blush, it is unclear whether this popular initiative affects anyone who is not Swiss. However, given the unwarranted perception that strict animal welfare laws are equivalent to “better”, one can easily imagine how other countries might pursue similar agendas if this initiative passes.

At the end of the day, we as scientists as well as the institutions that we work for, can and must do better to educate the public about the value and benefits of animal research. At the same time, we can and should improve animal welfare for those animals used in research, to the extent that it balances the scientific objectives with the use of those animals. Such systems of oversight and regulation are already in place (e.g., standards for animal care, external oversight, protocols and review for animal use, Harm-Benefit and Risk-Benefit analyses, consideration of alternatives to the use of animals etc.), and they will continue to be improved as new information becomes available.