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The ethical case for animal research

A new report by the Nuffield Council on Bioethics makes a virtue out of 'muddying the water'.

Helene Guldberg

Topics Science & Tech

At the launch of the Nuffield Council on Bioethics report, ‘The Ethics of Research Involving Animals’, TV personality Nick Ross isolated what to me is the report’s main asset – ‘it is a marvellous reference guide’. There are chapters full of useful information about what animal research has contributed to biological and medical science. As Professor Martin Raff, cell biologist and member of the working party, said: ‘most of what we know about physiology – including the endocrine systems – is based on invasive physiological studies of animals.’

So how could the two-year investigation from the Nuffield Council end up with the goal of the reduction of the use of animals in research? It elevated the importance of the ‘Three R’s’: the refinement, reduction and replacement of animals in research.

But do we need further restrictions on animal research? Today about 2.8million new experiments are started each year, while in the mid-1970s this figure was over 5million. The UK’s system for regulating animal experiments is already the tightest in the world. Researchers can only obtain licences if they clearly demonstrate that there are no alternatives to experimenting on animals. They must also show that the potential benefits of using animals outweigh any suffering the animals may experience. Heavy bureaucracy has resulted in some scientists waiting so long to secure approval for small amendments to research licences that the research becomes outdated, and has to be abandoned.

The overriding aim of the working party – it seemed from the launch event – was to achieve a consensus. Considering that the working party included both scientists involved in animal research and anti-vivisection campaigners, it is not surprising that the task was rather difficult. They managed to agree on some things: as well as agreeing that the reduction of animal suffering should be a priority, they unanimously condemned violence against people engaged in animal research.

Baroness Perry of Southwark, chairman of the working party, opened the launch event by celebrating its ability to ‘avoid the polarisation of the issue which has so often stifled proper debate’. Any dissention from the consensus was stigmatised as ‘extremist’, and Baroness Perry emphasised that all working party members had shown ‘respect for beliefs different from one’s own, allowing us to agree a consensus statement’.

Another working party member, Professor Jonathan Wolff, similarly emphasised the need to avoid the extreme positions. He said that the working party had rejected both the philosophical outlook of the ‘categorical moral superiority’ of humans, and the idea of ‘the moral equivalence’ of humans and animals. So what did the working party come up with? In Wolff’s own words, ‘the hybrid view’, which, as he added, is the ‘current policy’. When I asked the panel whether this was not a bit of a fudge, Nick Ross answered that ‘maybe what we were trying to do was muddy the water and not present things as crystal clear, because it is a rather complex issue’.

He is right that there are many issues that need to be addressed, in terms of the efficacy and scientific validity of research involving animals. Animals that are transported and housed in poor conditions, for instance, could end up distorting research results. But are the ethical issues really that complex? I don’t think so. The question is whether one adopts a human-centred morality or not. The reality is that most of us – including all the members of the working party – do adopt the philosophical outlook of ‘categorical human superiority’ in practice. Apart from a few eccentrics, we all value human life over and above animal life. But fewer and fewer people are prepared to put the case for a human-centred morality in public.

Why are scientists so defensive when the fact is that, when push comes to shove, the public overwhelmingly support animal research? It is clear that the key objective of most people involved in the working party is to allow animal experiments to take place. Yet, driven by a heightened sense of concern about the threat from anti-vivisectionists, they end up recommending further regulation and bureaucratisation of animal research.

Most scientists and policymakers will accept that animal research is not going to be replaced in the foreseeable future. Animal research cannot be soft and cuddly and, because it is necessary for scientific advance, it will continue. There is therefore no point in capitulating to animal rights activists by highlighting concern for animal welfare, and dodging the fact that the killing and maiming of animals is necessary. We are not talking about wanton assaults on animals, of course, which most of us find abhorrent. But millions of animals have been and will be used in experiments – they will be cut open, pumped full of toxins and carcinogens, and ultimately ‘destroyed’ – in order to further scientific knowledge and save human lives.

For sentimental reasons some may find this treatment of animals distasteful. But many major medical advances – insulin to treat diabetes, polio vaccines, antibiotics, safe anaesthetics, open heart surgery, organ transplantation, drug treatments for ulcers, asthma, high blood pressure and more – would not have been won, or would have been introduced at great human cost, were it not for animal experimentation. There are few people alive today who have not benefited in some way from these medical advances.

The uncritical celebration of the ‘Three Rs’ by most of the research community that engages in public debate is dishonest – and it also has deleterious funding implications. It is a now a funding priority of many research councils to fund Three Rs research, and the government announced this week £3million in new funding for the National Centre for the Three Rs, which was launched last year.

Rather than defensively stating that concern with animal welfare is paramount, the government and the research community should give an unequivocal message of support for animal research. Animal research helps in the battle against disease and disability, and thereby improves human welfare, but is also necessary for the general pursuit of knowledge – what is referred to as blue-sky research – whether or not that research will have any immediate benefits.

As professor Ian McConnell, member of the working party and professor of veterinary science, said from the floor at the launch event, ‘a civilised society should embrace the advancement of knowledge’ – even if it is for its own sake. He warned that today we hear too much about the Three Rs of replacement, reduction and refinement, and not enough about the ‘Three Is’ – overcoming ignorance, investing in new research and taking initiative. In other words, we are missing a more forward-looking embracement of experimentation and the advancement of knowledge. It is a shame McConnell’s views weren’t embraced by the working party.

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Topics Science & Tech

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