Animal testing blockade ‘means people will die’

A technician inspects two laboratory rats during an experiment © Getty Images

Labs in the UK are facing a crisis, a former science minister warned yesterday, as activists cut off their supply of animal test subjects. Many think this is cause for celebration.

Every year, around 1.5 million animals are used in experiments in British labs. Of these, about one percent are imported – usually genetically modified rats or mice that have been specially bred elsewhere in the EU. These ‘designer’ animals are vital for keeping consistency in scientific tests.

Now, that supply of imported animals is being slowly cut off. All UK based airlines have long refused to transport animals for testing, and the last ferry company to accept animal cargo has also just banned the trade.

Why? Because the transport companies are under pressure from animal rights activists who regard animal testing as useless, foolish and wrong. These activists have identified animal importers as weak links in the animal testing chain: there is little profit in transporting animals, and a lot to lose through bad publicity, so these firms are quick to cave in.

Former science minister Lord Drayson is alarmed. In an article in yesterday’s Times, he warned Britain that ‘medical research will wither in our universities, and as a result, more people will suffer and die.’

Drayson’s Conservative successor, David Willetts, agrees that this is a ‘serious problem’ – and has raised the possibility of using military aircraft to bring in animals from abroad.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron will worry about the business implications of the animal blockade. Two of the world’s biggest pharmaceutical companies have already pulled out of UK research centres. Many jobs could be lost if more decide to follow.

But animal rights activists say these fears are overblown and that animal testing is both unnecessary and misleading. Tests on cell cultures or computer models can replace tests on animals, they argue. And, as a spokesperson for the campaigning charity PETA pointed out, animal tests give faulty results. Drugs which work on animals fail in humans more than 90% of the time.

Animal wrongs?

It is not practical concerns, however, that drive opposition to animal testing. Campaigners regard animal experimentation as morally wrong – perhaps even unforgivable. Animals suffer, they say. They feel loneliness, fear and pain. That means they have rights which should never be ignored – for any reason. Harming an animal is never justified.

Most scientists and medics take a less absolute, more utilitarian view. Yes, they agree, the suffering of animals is something to be avoided. But there is no escaping the fact that animal tests really do advance our knowledge of medicine, and save human lives – and they are only done when there really is no other way of doing the necessary science. In such cases, animal rights come behind the rights of people.

You Decide

  1. Should animal testing be banned completely?
  2. Is animal suffering less morally important than human suffering?

Activities

  1. How many rats would you be willing to kill (by doing painful experiments on them) if you could save one human life? Everyone in the class should write down their number. Then compare. What is the class average?
  2. A simple form of utilitarian ethics says you should always do the thing which results in the greatest good for the greatest number. Describe a scenario where this principle could be applied. In your imagined circumstances, would this moral rule be a good one to follow?

Some People Say...

“Testing on animals is torture.”

What do you think?

Q & A

Wait! You mean animals were hurt to make medicine that I might need?
Hurt, yes. And then probably killed. On the other hand, that medicine could save your life, or the life of a family member.
Maybe that’s okay then.
It’s a difficult debate. What isn’t okay, at least in most of the EU, is animal testing for cosmetics. In other parts of the world, however, animals are still used to test things like hairspray and lipstick.
And what sorts of animals are tests done on?
In Britain, it’s 69% mice, 13% rats, 4% birds, 2% sheep, pigs and cows. Monkeys, dogs and cats make up 0.41% – although that’s still thousands of individual animals. Research on great apes like chimpanzees and gorillas is banned.

Word Watch

Cell cultures
Many tests can be performed on biological tissues that are artificially grown, or ‘cultured’, in a test tube. Brain cells and skin cells have both been produced this way.
Computer models
A computer model is a virtual model of a biological system. Scientists use previously acquired information about how cells and organs work to construct a very detailed simulation, on which virtual ‘chemicals’ can be tested. However, it is hard to be sure the simulation is accurate without doing physical tests.
Utilitarian
Utilitarianism, in the philosophy of ethics, is a form of consequentialism: the doctrine that the goodness or badness of an action should be judged by its consequences. In particular, utilitarians say that we should always do what produces the greatest good for the greatest number. The opposite view is called deontological ethics. Deontologists say some things (for example, murder) are always wrong, whatever the consequences.

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