Opinion: Why a ban on animal testing is short-sighted and bad for our knowledge-based economy

University of the West of England, laboratory, science. Some rights reserved by JiscLast week the BBC reported on a piece of potential Lib Dem policy that was picked up by Lib Dem Voice yesterday; Norman Baker’s desire to ban all animal testing. Now the spurious use of animals with scant regard for animal welfare is of course wrong but an outright ban on this practise shows a lack of understanding of the use of animals in the first place.

Medical research needs animal testing. Norman Baker MP is absolutely correct in that we should be using alternative techniques where they exist and develop them so they can be used in the future. However when testing new drugs there is no way round testing the toxicity and efficacy in animals. Cell-based techniques cannot be used as a complete substitute because we need to see the effects of medicine against a whole organism; the success and dangers of drugs depends on a whole suite of systems and complex biological relationships that can only be seen using whole-organism models. I certainly wouldn’t want to give an experimental drug to human volunteers before it has been tested in animals.

The scientific community is already bound by law to limit the use of animals through the “3Rs” philosophy; reduction, replacement and refinement. All experiments need to be licenced by the Home Office and they need to show that all efforts have been put in place to replace the use of animals if possible, that the numbers used are the absolute minimum and that experiments ensure the welfare of the animals are kept to the highest standard.

I understand the desire to make animal testing applications more transparent however the approach to animal testing in the past by anti-vivisectionists has often shown little regard to the opinions and safety of those employed in science and supporting industries. I would not want the lives and livelihoods of innocent people put at risk if the names and locations of animal testing were out in the public gallery.

The economic argument for banning animal testing does not consider the fact that the UK is a leading biological research nation with world beating laboratories that further our understanding of biology. It employs many of the best scientists and supports the pharmaceutical industry which plays a massive and vital part in our nation’s economy. Banning animal testing will only jeopardise our global position in research.

Science needs animal testing if we are to truly understand the science of our own biology; we should not scupper our attempts to further our knowledge by banning this challenging but vital tool in research.

* Alasdair Hill is a Lib Dem member and secondary school biology teacher based in North London.

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22 Comments

  • How can you have a Minister overseeing the continuation and regulation of a process he wants ended? Baker has to either transfer responsibility to someone else, or resign.

  • Richard Wingfield 5th Aug '14 - 1:02pm

    On this particular issue, I am in agreement with Norman Baker.

    I would dispute that the scientific community is obliged to reduce the number of animals used in research. Since 1995, the total number of procedures has increased from around 2.75 million to over 4 million in 2013. Whilst the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 does require high standards, it does not have the overall effect of reducing the number of animals and procedures carried out. This needs to be addressed.

    Nothing Norman has said about the review of section 24 of the Act would suggest information about names and locations would be revealed. Section 24 prohibits the disclosure of any information whatsoever relating to the research which isn’t required under the Act. This makes it almost impossible for anyone other than members of the Animals in Science Committee to monitor the use of animals in research and to challenge assertions made that the minimum number of animals are used and with the minimum amount of suffering. If researchers are confident that they are meeting these requirements, then there should be no concern over greater transparency here.

    The author also misses the principled objection for those of us who oppose research on animals, simply that it is unethical in and of itself to subject an animal to treatment that we would not permit to a human. Our right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment is one of the few human rights which is absolute i.e. with no exceptions. There are many of us who believe that it should be an absolute right for animals as well. The benefits to human health and life expectancy come at the cost of the suffering (and, in many cases, extreme suffering) of other living creatures. Whilst they may not have the self-consciousness of humans, they are still able to feel fear, pain, distress, depression and other forms of mental suffering. For many of us, that cost is too great.

  • The author also misses the principled objection for those of us who oppose research on animals, simply that it is unethical in and of itself to subject an animal to treatment that we would not permit to a human. Our right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment is one of the few human rights which is absolute i.e. with no exceptions. There are many of us who believe that it should be an absolute right for animals as well. The benefits to human health and life expectancy come at the cost of the suffering (and, in many cases, extreme suffering) of other living creatures. Whilst they may not have the self-consciousness of humans, they are still able to feel fear, pain, distress, depression and other forms of mental suffering. For many of us, that cost is too great.

    If you truly feel this way, why do you focus on animal research, rather than farming? Billions more animals die each year as a result of farming than do science. Why not prioritise that?

  • I detest the idea of testing on animals. I wish it was unnecessary. However, many in our society who demand that such practices are stopped immediately would also be the first to complain if there were no medications or treatments available for humans. We can’t have it both ways.

  • 1. People want to use chemicals which are safe. I do not think many parents would accept their child dying or being maimed because animal testing was banned.
    2. Thought must be given as to whether testing on an animal is relevant to humans in each case.

  • I really would not like to see the Liberal Democrat Party take up a line that believes “Our right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman and degrading punishment is one of the few human rights which is absolute i.e. with no exceptions … … should be an absolute right for animals as well” [Richard Wingfield] A corollary would be that the Party should oppose of any animal products (except possibly hens’ eggs).

    Our concerns for health and most pressingly for mental health must take precedence over laboratory animals. Modern medicine that allows many to live who in the past could not have survived is the fruit of research that has been carried out on other laboratory animals. The elucidation of the genome of mice and rats offers the potential of researching into animal models for conditions such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, schizophrenia and autism. Neuroscience is the major frontier of biological understanding. There can be no substantive advance in this field without animal research.

  • Richard Wingfield 5th Aug '14 - 1:52pm

    @Martin – I never said that my view should be party policy. This is an issue of conscience, I believe, and liberal arguments can be made both in favour and against a ban. I speak purely from my own personal point of view,

    @g – I don’t see where I said that this was a priority over the treatment of animals in other situations. As this was an article about animal testing in research, I have responded on this issue, but I feel equally strongly about the treatment of animals in farming, in circuses, in hunting and as pets and in many other situations. If there were an article about one of these issues, I would have written in response to it as well.

  • Alasdair Hill 5th Aug '14 - 2:07pm

    Thank-you for your comment Richard. You are correct in stating that the number of animals used in research has increased since 1995 however this does not necessarily mean that individual projects are using more animals as we do not know how much research in total has increased since 1995. Individual projects must reduce and replace, where possible, their use of animals; the increase in procedures using animals is likely a reflection on the increase in the amount of science being conducted in general which is a good thing for health, knowledge and the economy.

    It is encouraging to know that locations and identities are not being asked for however one reason why animal research remains exempt from FOI requests is due to the rare, but nethertheless real, criminal acts that have endangered those involved in this sector that have been perpetrated in the past.

    I do not disregard the rights and welfare of animals and nor do any scientists that use animals in research. Indeed through the refinement of procedures, scientists must ensure that animals do not suffer from fear, pain, distress and mental suffering. Animals are kept in clean, comfortable and stimulating environments . The killing of animals follow strict humane procedures. We will always disagree on this ultimate point however for me I cannot hide from the clear benefits to our health that animal research can provide. As another commentator has suggested, the logical step from banning animal testing would be to oppose the use of any product that has used animals in testing. This, for me, is a cost too great.

  • Jayne Mansfield 5th Aug '14 - 2:16pm

    @ Richard Wingfield,
    The two people known to me who are involved in research involving animals are animal lovers. There is no way that they would cause unnecessary suffering to

    I do not believe that there is a moral equivalence between humans and animals. Animals are not humans. It is our humanity that causes us not to want to inflict unnecessary suffering on any sentient creature.

    I find Norman Baker’s involvement troubling even though you say your view is not that of the party.

  • Nonconformistradical 5th Aug '14 - 3:59pm

    1. Is Richard Wingfield going to volunteer as a ‘lab rat’ for every experiment which would otherwise be carried out on an animal in the UK?

    2. Is there not a risk that banning all testing using animals might result in such tests being carried out instead in other parts of the world having less strict regimes covering such testing than exists here?

  • Alex Baldwin 5th Aug '14 - 5:23pm

    Just chipping in to say I am heartened by the overwhelming response that Norman Baker’s statement has provoked here. I have spent a lot of time arguing against people who wish to ban animal research, so I’m glad that today at least I can do something else.

  • Passing through 5th Aug '14 - 10:11pm

    Regarding the numbers of animals being used in scientific procedures increasing in recent years I’ll quote Evan Harris from the other thread:-

    “Numbers can increase as research funding increases but also because genetically modified animals (mainly mice) are proving very valuable in medical research, and replacing “ordinary” mice. But the GM mice need to be bred and extra breeding pairs count in the numbers even though they are not subject to experimentation. So the raw numbers are misleading, because an increase is still consistent with minimisation.”

    The misconception that an increase in raw numbers of animals equates to an increase in animal suffering and a failure at minimisation is trivially easy to correct and has been done repeatedly, that the anti-vivisectionists still knowingly peddle it knowing it is not true reflects very badly upon them and their entire argument.

  • I’m disappointed by the reaction to Richard Wingfield’s comments, which I have to say on the whole I agree with.

    I also don’t like the talk regarding numbers, arguing whether there is an increase in animal suffering or not as those in the not camp seem to be happy with the level where it’s at. Surely any level of animal suffering is bad?

    The question shouldn’t be whether Richard would be willing to offer himself as a lab rat instead, more so would you be happy to become that rat, or say your family dog or cat, would you let them go through scientific testing? If not then why are you happy for other creatures to undergo it?

    Besides, animals aren’t just little humans, even if tests are successful on them there is no guarantee that they will translate to positive medical breakthroughs, also, just because something doesn’t work on an animal doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t be effective on us.

    I’m not well versed in all of the arguments and I totally expect people to disagree, but for me it is a matter of principle, I wouldn’t perform a test on any sentient being that doesn’t have a choice about being there.

  • Passing through 6th Aug '14 - 11:22am

    @ Matthew Lambert “Surely any level of animal suffering is bad”

    Yes but any level of human suffering is worse and on balance the suffering of a small number of animals to alleviate the suffering of a large number of humans (and animals too, veterinary medicine also has to come from somewhere) is a price most people are willing to pay.

    “Suffering” is’t even the correct term for a large number of the procedures currently counted under the system, there is no noticeable “suffering” in breeding a line of GM mice nor in observing a chimp performing a memory test and where there is a possibility of suffering the animal is usually anaesthetised and insensate.

    As for your doubts about the effectiveness of animal testing the vast majority of medical researchers (me included) disagree and in the end they are the ones best placed to make that judgement. It is expensive and laborious, when non-animal alternatives of equal effectiveness are available we leap on them, we don’t do animal work for fun or profit we do it because acceptable alternatives don’t always exist.

    Even the development of alternatives doesn’t always allow an immediate switch e.g. one of my projects was to develop a stem-cell (i.e non-animal) based version of one of the current standard animal-based toxicology tests but even then I still needed to perform the animal tests in parallel as a comparison to validate the new test. Ultimately, hopefully, this new test will do away with the need for animal usage for this particular test but not just yet and so the animal experimentation has to still carry on.

  • The question shouldn’t be whether Richard would be willing to offer himself as a lab rat instead, more so would you be happy to become that rat, or say your family dog or cat, would you let them go through scientific testing? If not then why are you happy for other creatures to undergo it?

    You might as well ask whether someone would be happy to be eaten for Sunday lunch, and if not ask them why they don’t want to ban eating meat.

    Of course individuals have the right to decide they don’t want to eat meat or use products that have been tested on animals. But the question is whether they have the right to impose that on the whole of society. Surely not, if they are liberals?

  • g is quite correct to point out that billions more animals die as a consequence of our dietary habits than because of animal testing. Moving towards a plant based diet would do far more to alleviate animal suffering than ending testing, and would have the additional benefits of improving human health, allowing us to produce more of our own food in this country, and reducing global warming significantly. My parents were anti-vivisectionists who would not allow their children to be immunised against anything, but who were quite happy to give us eggs and dairy products (although not meat). It is only in recent years that I have, thanks to my daughter, come to recognise the incongruity of that position.

  • tonyhill, indeed. I am bullish, often to the point of obnoxious, when it comes to defending the need (not the right) for animal experimentation in science. However, in my personal life, I only eat free range eggs (as much as I can be sure these meet certain welfare standards), and keep my meat consumption low, and try and shop around for ethically sourced meat (not as easy as it sounds, labels such as ‘organic’ are used as a proxy for this, but often are anything but).

    Given that the standards of welfare for animals in science are measurably vastly better than those for farms, I feel campaigners often focus on the wrong thing by attacking the use of animals in science, when they’d be better pushing for better standards in farming if they want to do the greatest good for least worst outcome.

  • Would you give up your own and childrens’ pets to be experimented on? If not why not, they are only animals and do not have any feelings. Anyone who does have a pet knows that is a lie. I once kept chickens (for eggs) each one had a distinct personality although people say they are stupid. Yes farming treats animals badly and that should be addressed but who cares as they stuff their bellies? That does not excuse the cruelty towards animals in science. Who are we to say what sentient being should be mistreated? There are many humans in this world who think that those of another faith or race can also be cruelly used and killed as they are lesser beings. Look to the Middle East.

  • Peter Arnold 12th Aug '14 - 3:06pm

    I find the whole business of using animals to test drugs and surgical procedures intended for humans practically, ethically and morally repugnant. For me, as a Buddhist, as well as a Liberal Democrat, all living beings have a right to life, and that includes animals. The first Buddhist precept is to avoid harm to all beings; that includes animals as well as humans. The human predilection for taking pleasure in the hunting and killing of non-human beings reduces our right to consider ourselves the judge of which animals, under which circumstances, can be used to experiment on for the supposed benefit of human beings. Norman Baker is right – animal testing should be abolished. And if business interests involved in animal experimentation leave the UK as a result, then my attitude is “Good riddance”!

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