Friday 26 November 2004


Stop apologising for animal experiments

We don’t need more laws against animal rights activists, but a more robust defence of animal experimentation.

This year’s Queen’s Speech, in which the British government sets out its lawmaking agenda for the forthcoming year, was dominated by a string of anti-crime measures - including an unprecedented criminal offence that targets ‘economic sabotage’ conducted by animal rights extremists.

In the past year alone, activists’ have succeeded in blocking the £24million primate research centre at Cambridge University, and interrupting work at the £18million animal research facility at Oxford University.

UK prime minister Tony Blair, who has vowed to make Britain a global magnet for science companies, is determined to tackle the small band of misanthropes responsible and prevent them from further targeting companies and research institutions.

But surely there are more than enough laws to criminalise harassment, intimidation and protest? Home Secretary David Blunkett is planning to make it a legal offence to ‘target’ (and that can even mean phoning more than twice) directors, shareholders and employees in companies involved in animal experimentation.

However abhorrent their ideas, animal rights activists should have the right to express their views, and even to make a few phone calls, however threatening. If their protests involve physical violence or vandalism then the law is already well-equipped to deal with them. It is against the law to throw bricks through people’s windows and to damage other people’s property.

The anti-vivisectionists’ campaigns of harassment and intimidation, even when they are lawful, are a legitimate concern for the individuals at the receiving end. It is of course worrying to receive phone calls in which you or your family are threatened.

But the government’s authoritarian strategy - restricting freedom of movement further, cracking down on pickets, and broadening the definition of harassment - is unlikely to improve matters. The anti-vivisectionists are not going to stop just because more of their activities are made illegal. If anything, they will win some sympathy as ‘victims of civil rights abuses’.

Currently, the tactics of animal rights activists are generally not seen as acceptable - yet a sense of defensiveness at the heart of the government and the research community means that they constantly feel the need to send out a ‘clear message’ to the British public about how unacceptable the extremists’ actions are.

When setting out her Department of Trade and Industry’s five-year-plan to make Britain the most attractive place in the world for scientific research, Patricia Hewitt stated that attacks on graveyards are ‘unacceptable and disgusting’ and should not be tolerated in a civilised society. She was referring to the desecration of the grave - and the removal of the body - of an 82-year-old woman whose relatives run a farm breeding guinea pigs for medical research. But since when were attacks on graveyards tolerated?

The British public does not, on the whole, support the tactics of a small band of animal rights extremists. A far bigger problem we face, both the government and those of us who support the use of animals in research, is that many do have some sympathy with the animal rights cause - the ‘ending of animal suffering’.

Making Britain a centre of scientific excellence will remain a pipe dream unless the government and the scientific community start tackling the animal rights arguments head on. Ministers have responded to criticisms from animal rights activists by highlighting that the UK has the ‘strongest laws in the world’ on the use of animals in research.

But there is no point in capitulating to the 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 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 and high blood pressure, and much more - would not have been won, or would have been introduced at great human cost, if it were not for animal experimentation. There are few people alive today who won’t have benefited in some way from such medical advances.

Rather than defensively stating that concern for animal welfare is paramount, which makes little sense and will convince nobody, the government and the research community should give an unequivocal message of support for animal research. So long as animal research helps in the battle against disease and disability, thereby improving human welfare, campaigners should champion it as a morally good pursuit - without feeling the need to apologise for anything.

First published by spiked