Performative politics and animal research: When is a ban not a ban?

March 24, 2022
Speaking of Research 

From the EU to individual countries to small municipalities in the US there appears to be a new wave of trendy legislative efforts. The general idea is a proposal to ban some aspects of research or testing that involves nonhuman animals. The ban may take the form of directly interfering with research. Or, it may aim to eliminate research and testing with animals by banning entities that breed animals for that purpose. Examples of the former include a failed referendum to ban animal testing in Switzerland. Examples of the latter include a number of research animal breeding bans that were passed in small municipalities in US states. 

What the proposals have in common is significant. In most– if not all– cases the proposed actions are effectively detached from meaningful immediate consequences to their constituency. 

Beagle playing with toy. Image courtesy of Americans for Medical Progress. CC-by-4.0

Proposed bans on animal research and testing are rarely accompanied by a ban on accepting the results of scientific research and medical advances accomplished through animal research and testing. Bans on breeding research animals in a municipality are rarely (if ever) accompanied by a ban on the municipalities’ citizens benefiting from scientific knowledge and medical advances through use of animals in other municipalities. In fact, in the case of “breeding bans” there is often no accompanying language to ban the use of animals in research or testing within the same municipality. In other words, the research or testing can occur, but the animals have to be bred and obtained from some other place.

Perhaps worse yet (at least from the perspective of avoiding hypocrisy), many of the legislative efforts actually appear to have little (or no) impact at all in terms of stopping or ending an activity. 

The absence of immediate or direct impact is particularly true within countries and municipalities that have a small footprint with respect to investment and accomplishment in research and development. As we’ve noted previously, such efforts often occur in areas where there are no businesses or entities conducting research animal breeding, animal research, or particular kinds of animal testing–the very entities that would be banned. In other cases, such efforts occur in countries or regions that have already seen declines in particular types of research, or already rely on outsourcing the work. It is rare for politicians– or journalists, or members of the public– to explicitly note that the proposed actions will have little direct consequence because their constituency will continue to benefit via work, effort, and support of the same activity in other municipalities or geographic regions. 

In fact, each of these non-effects appear to be a central feature that make the legislative proposals palatable to politicians. When no local research institutions, businesses, or companies stand to be negatively affected by legislation there is little apparent risk for endorsing the proposal. So why would politicians put their name behind legislation that has no direct impact? 

Why do politicians propose and support these bans?

Because it sounds good. How many would oppose “research puppy mills” absent any context or connection to consequences for safe medicine and new treatments, for example? And how few will connect research animals to the scientific knowledge, medical advances, safe medicines and vaccines that they enjoy? Some may realize that a local ban will have little immediate impact on the continued benefits that come from the animal research that occurs in universities, federal research facilities, private research facilities, and companies across the world. How likely is it that they will raise this point or speak up in opposition to a local ban? 

Because international political groups work tirelessly to promote and reward legislative efforts consistent with their overall objectives and goals. Groups like PETA, Cruelty Free International, Humane Society of the US, Humane Society International, White Coat Waste Project (WCWP) are among those that advance, assist, promote, and reward various political and legal attempts to interfere with the use of animals in research. Such efforts are recognized from the level of national governments to small municipalities. Note, for example, the WCWP “Waste Warrior Awards,” the Humane Society Score card and Legislative Fund, or PETA’s various awards and media events.  

Because the bans appear to be simple and avoid complicated moral questions that extend far beyond the use of animals in research and testing. The central moral question–whether humans should use other animals at all, and for what purpose– is rarely the question up for a vote. The number of animals eaten by humans vastly overwhelms the number of animals in research and testing, for example. Yet few politicians would propose a ban on eating meat or breeding animals for food or fiber. That simple fact is notable.

First question to ask: What is the position of politicians and other stakeholders advocating for bans?

As we’ve written previously, starting assumptions and foundational questions matter. Do politicians supporting bans share the absolutist view of groups that advance, cheer, and reward those bills?

Do they believe, for example, that: “All uses of animals, regardless of whether there are alternatives and regardless of the need, are treated identically. In other words, the use of a mouse in research aimed at new discoveries to treat childhood disease is considered morally equivalent to the use of a cow to produce hamburgers, the use of an elephant in a circus, or a mink for a fur coat. In this framework, the focus often excludes consideration of the harms that would accrue as a consequence of enacting the animal rights agenda. For example, the harm to both humans and other animals of foregoing research or intervening on behalf of animals. As a result, while the absolutist position is often represented as one that involves only benefits and no harms, this is a false representation.” (read entirety here).

As we’ve written previously, science is truly global and without many borders. What that means is that, as long as scientific knowledge and technology is shared, all can benefit even if they fail to contribute or ban it within their borders. What individuals, municipalities, countries, and regions might consider is following Switzerland’s model, where an initiative that called for a halt to all experiments on humans and animals included a ban on the import of new products developed using such methods. To be consistent, however, that should include a ban on the use of knowledge and discoveries from basic (or fundamental) animal studies that provided the basis for new medicines, treatments, and understanding.

Then again, the Swiss referendum failed to gain the popular vote. The failure may reflect a concerted effort of promoting the visibility of the consequences of such a vote on the Swiss public and the precedent it might set for Europe and the rest of the world. Similar efforts have occurred for some of the bans introduced across the US. In others we have seen reasonably little resistance to the passage of these bills. The passage of these bills, at local levels, set dangerous precedents, which can subsequently be followed at federal levels. More importantly however, they affect the US potential to continue to lead in biomedical research, and to provide cures to existing and emergent diseases that affect us all.