The case for testing on animals

Submitted by Anon on 11 March, 2006 - 11:25

David Broder, a former animal rights activist, assesses the the issues behind scientific (and not so scientific) tests on animals

It’s no surprise that there are plenty of people who oppose Oxford University building animal testing labs. At a February 2005 High Court hearing, British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection activists claimed that at Cambridge, healthy and intelligent monkeys had the tops of their heads sawn off in order to induce strokes. After this ordeal, the monkeys were left without veterinary care for 15 hours, their brains exposed. Harrowing stuff.

But the Research Defence Society’s reply, upheld by the court, makes us think twice. The experiments were not, as animal-rights activists might have us believe, the work of “evil” scientists whose only aim is harming animals, but vital research aimed at solving the plight of countless stroke and Parkinson’s disease victims. Through examining the behaviour of advanced primates, they can better understand how to treat humans. In reality, the Cambridge monkeys were fully anaesthetised and properly fed and watered.

This case is symptomatic of the whole debate over vivisection. Animal-rights activists try to stop research on the basis of abuses (of which only some are genuine), while scientists committed to medical progress face the harassment of activists whose understanding and portrayal of vivisection are often naive.

The literature of groups such as Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (SHAC) is always the same. Newsletters feature innocent fluffy bunnies and cats, next to articles about “Nazi” scientists and their “animal Auschwitz”. They crudely dismiss the notion that medical progress has been made. The tactics, however, rely on a rather more shrewd analysis — that animal testing labs need suppliers and financiers whose economic fate only partly rests on vivisection, and so are easier to pressurise than the researchers themselves. Until 2000, HSBC held stock in Huntingdon Life Sciences, but when staff were cold-called and threatened, the bank protected itself by pulling out. Groups such as SPEAK and SHAC claim that all of their tactics are legitimate, and only a fringe uses violence — in fact, their phone campaigns and attacks on specific companies only work because there are real threats to animal lab contractors.

At Oxford, it was not their peaceful protest that made Walter Lilly stop building the labs, but the fact that shareholders who received threatening letters were all too aware of past arson and bomb attacks on scientists’ homes by the “Animal Liberation Front”.

Last year, with the arson attack on Hertford College boathouse, such fears were corroborated. The ALF issued a statement last month; “...we must stand up, DO WHATEVER IT TAKES and blow these fucking monsters off the face of the planet. We must target professors, teachers, heads, students...”

Their movement sees abusing animals as the evil, and nothing is sacred in fighting it. If you think the lives of animals and humans are equal, such views have a certain lunatic coherence — their rhetoric is crazy, but their commitment is almost admirable. Many people in the animal-rights movement are caring people who empathise with lab animals’ suffering. And it’s easy to understand why footage of monkeys retching and skinned kittens angers them. Such images have a certain immediacy which nameless, hypothetical Parkinson’s sufferers lack.

But the reality is that countless human lives have been saved by treatment developed through vivisection. Insulin for diabetes patients, the honing of penicillin and the procedure for organ transplants relied heavily on trials which used animals.

Dr Joseph Murray, who won a Nobel Prize for his work on transplant rejection, said “there would not be a single person alive today as a result of an organ or bone marrow transplant without animal experimentation. All the work that we did depended on the use of animals.” There are other avenues of research, but the commitment of vivisectionists, despite death threats, to continue testing on animals displays the fact that scientists feel that it remains vital to medical progress.

Cosmetic testing is an entirely different issues. It is positive thing that cosmetic testing on animals has become increasingly rare, and will end in the EU in 2009.

Millions of animals still die each year for medical advances — their suffering deserves our pity. But we cannot over-sentimentalise this. Only 0.3% of the “victims” are primates, and 0.03% are cats. The fact that animal-rights activists are more shy of speaking out for rats and insects, which form the vast majority of animals used, shows that they are not confident in claiming that we shouldn’t sacrifice any creature to save human lives.

Marxists are humanists — the lives of humans are more worthy than those of even the most developed mammals. Humans are unique in their ability to create, to express ideas, to manipulate their environment. We have enormous potential, and can appreciate the world at a far higher level than other species. In evolutionary terms, humans, who have the potential to change the world, are light years ahead of orangutans or chimpanzees.

Animals are not a historically oppressed group which can liberate itself, or to which we can give solidarity. Their well-being depends entirely on human compassion. In this scenario, our ultimate loyalty is to people’s lives, and saving them by any reasonable means necessary is the priority.

This is not to say that we do not want to stand up to abuses, such as where Huntingdon lab workers laughed as they punched beagles in the face. Such acts are dehumanising and needlessly cruel. We condemn hurting animals for cheap thrills. We condemn them not because animals have rights, but because humans should not be so uncaring and violent.

Most relevant to issues about unnecessary animal suffering is the food industry, where the needs of capitalism require that chickens are kept in tiny cages and pumped with drugs so that supermarkets can save a few pence on produce.

In the case of medicine, some conclude that it would be better if we put money into alternatives to vivisection, so that we would not need to exact pain on animals to save human lives. Possibly so. But in the here and now I would far rather drugs companies were forced to put their profits into ensuring their products are safe for humans, than they paid for the survival of a few million worms.