Opinion: Seriously sick of animal rights
Despite their dramatic hunger-strike tactics, animal rights activists have failed to achieve a public government commitment to limit research on animals. But they seem to be exerting a fair amount of influence behind the scenes. Those involved in medical research are complaining that the government is adopting an increasingly negative attitude to animal research. According to Dr Mike Matfield, head of the Research Defence Society, an organisation established to counter the misinformation perpetrated by the animal rights lobby, New Labour 'seems to want to appease the anti-vivisection movement by adding more and more restrictions, bureaucracy and controls'.
Matfield and his colleagues complain that recent changes to the regulations that restrict animal research are making it more and more difficult for the scientific community to make progress in important areas of work. In a style that is increasingly typical of this government, changes to statutory regulations are made not to solve problems or improve the quality of work, but with the opportunistic intention of creating headlines that will generate a sympathetic public response. So, last year, when the Home Office substantially increased the regulations in place under the Animal (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, they failed to consult any representatives of the scientific community - not even their own Office of Science and Technology. The government probably thought it was unnecessary. They were guaranteed pats on the back all round from animal rights supporters, whose commitment to ending animal research is based on complete ignorance of what such research involves. And pats on the back are what ministers crave.
Unfortunately, public relations exercises intended to show that the government listens to the views of the nation have practical consequences for those working in the field of animal research.
In this case the new regulations mean that scientists have to apply for a licence, not only at the start of any research project involving the use of animals, but also every time the procedures vary. And, of course, this happens frequently because the course of scientific research cannot be predicted with complete accuracy ahead of time. The consequence of this is that the Home Office is flooded with requests for licences at a time when there is little incentive for the government to invest resources in speeding projects along. The PR shine would quickly tarnish if news broke that the government was increasing the number of licences granted.
The Research Defence Society claims that the Home Office currently has a backlog of more than 1200 requests to amend animal research licences. This represents 1200 medical research projects that have been stalled for no rational reason.
Faced with the lurid and emotive propaganda of the anti-vivisection groups, it is easy to forget that those engaged in animal research are not sadists, but scientists driven to find treatments and cures for illness.
Like it or not, most medical advances are based on animal research. There may be a lot one can do with computer models and cell cultures but they cannot possibly substitute for work with an entire organism. If we were to delete all the biological or medical knowledge gained from studies on live animals - and the subsequent advances that depended on that knowledge - we would lose much of what we know about pharmacology, biochemistry, physiology, genetics, immunology, pathology and medical science. Dr Mike Matfield claims we would also have to delete huge contributions to the applied studies of surgery, clinical chemistry, drug development, vaccine development, radiotherapy and other areas that are essential for the development of new treatments and diagnostic techniques.
I lost what little patience I had left for the anti-vivisection lobby several years ago when I met and interviewed Andrew Blake, then a twentysomething wheelchair-bound sufferer of Fredreich's Ataxia. Blake had just set up an organisation called Seriously Ill for Medical Research. He believed that the only hope for people suffering from serious illness is a major breakthrough in medical research and that for many, including him, the hope of this was the only thing that made life worth living.
We talked about the effect of threats to scientists and raids on laboratories and he calmly explained that all of these delayed breakthroughs that could help those suffering serious illness. I did not have to check my notes of the conversation (although I did) to bring to mind his conclusion: 'We are the ones who eventually pay the price with our extended suffering.' Even though Andrew Blake was referring to the delays to research caused by the stunts and violence of animal rights activists, his point applies equally to the delays caused by unnecessary bureaucracy.
Sick people may be less photogenic than beagles, chimps and fluffy bunnies but they're infinitely more deserving of our concern.
Reproduced from LM issue 117, February 1999