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The case against animal experiments

...is mainly a moral one, argues Christine Orr, research officer for the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV)

You would not think so from reading Dr Mark Matfield's article ('The case for animal experiments', LM, April 1999), but vivisection is primarily a moral issue, not a scientific one. BUAV believes that to inflict suffering on defenceless animals during experiments is wrong.

There is no doubt that vivisection involves an enormous amount of suffering. The 2.6 million experiments carried out in Britain each year that fall under the auspices of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986, which governs animal experiments, do so precisely because they may cause 'pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm'. Experiments are categorised as mild, moderate or severe according to the amount of pain they are expected to cause. Anaesthetic is used in only one-third of experiments, and many of those animals who do receive anaesthetic will recover consciousness and then suffer the inevitable consequences, sometimes for months or even years.

Government statistics and published research papers provide a limited insight into what animals are subjected to behind the locked doors of the laboratory. To take just a few examples: they are poisoned to death in the LD50 test, have chemicals put into their eyes, are burnt and irradiated. Monkeys have pig hearts transplanted into them, and die as a result of the toxic anti-rejection drugs they are given. Recent experiments in other countries include the use of chimpanzees in AIDS research. After infection with the HIV virus these highly intelligent, social animals are condemned to solitary confinement for life, during which time they may become insane. In sleep deprivation experiments, cats were put on small platforms in water tanks, forcing them to stay awake for 24 hours to avoid falling into the water. Rats were totally deprived of sleep for up to 20 days, causing some to die.

Proponents of animal research argue that the animal suffering it causes is justified because human suffering may be reduced as a result. However, for one group to cause suffering to another weak and defenceless group which cannot consent to, or benefit from, the suffering, is a practice which would normally be condemned under any code of ethics, however desirable the ends sought. BUAV believes that the fact that it is animals who comprise the suffering group is morally irrelevant. In any case, this argument cannot be used to justify the huge numbers of experiments carried out largely for commercial gain or market share. These include household product tests, pesticide tests and tests for 'me-too' drugs - drugs which offer little or no therapeutic value over those already on the market. Nor can it be used to justify those experiments which appear to be motivated by peer pressure or idle curiosity.

Another argument against vivisection is that it is very difficult, if not impossible, to regulate effectively to avoid animal suffering over and above that necessarily caused by experiments. On every occasion that animal protection organisations have carried out undercover investigations into laboratories, illegal practices have been uncovered. For example, in 1997 an undercover investigation shown on Channel 4 into Huntingdon Life Sciences revealed dogs being punched and shaken by staff, while other staff stood laughing. The catalogue of cruelty appeared to have gone unnoticed by the seriously under-staffed government inspectorate. Animals are always intensely vulnerable to cruel treatment from humans, and in vivisection laboratories it is particularly difficult to protect them from it.

As well as the moral arguments against vivisection, many scientists also condemn it on scientific grounds. Certainly, the idea that the results of animal tests can be applied directly to humans has been proved false again and again, with devastating results. In America 52 percent of new medications released between 1976 and 1985 were recalled or relabelled following side effects in humans not predicted by the animal tests. The heart drug Eraldin caused blindness and death; the anti-diarrhoeal Clioquinol caused blindness and paralysis, and the arthritis drug Opren caused over 3500 severe side effects, with 61 deaths. Side effects of other drugs which passed animal tests include stroke, seizures, liver and kidney failure, anaemia and psychotic episodes.

Similarly, drugs that are noxious or ineffective in animals can be the reverse in humans. Penicillin was initially discarded by Flemming after it caused toxic effects in animals. Thalidomide was extensively tested on animals prior to being released, but was tested for birth defects only after these were found in babies. Out of over 50 species, breeds and strains of animals tested, the effects seen in humans were only consistently reproduced in the New Zealand rabbit.

The notion that all major medical advances have depended on animal research must be challenged. For example, epidemiological studies show clearly that improved sanitation and hygiene were immeasurably more effective in eradicating or reducing infectious diseases such as TB and whooping cough than animal-tested vaccines.

The recently developed technology of genetic engineering provides more lessons in species differences. In the early 1980s growth-promoting genes were inserted into mice, who grew rapidly, as expected, and were twice the size of normal mice. When the same technique was applied to pigs they suffered a wide and unpredicted range of problems: lethargy, kidney damage, defective vision arising from abnormal skull growth, reproductive abnormalities, susceptibility to pneumonia and other infections, and bone and joint disorders. In 1992 mice were developed to have a gene defect similar to that of people with cystic fibrosis, but their symptoms mimicked human ones very imperfectly. For example, lung infections cause 95 percent of deaths and disability in cystic fibrosis patients, but the mice showed few signs of airways abnormalities.

Instead of animal research, BUAV believes that resources should be invested in the wide range of modern, effective alternative methods that exist. Also, much more attention should be given to disease prevention - it is known that native tribes living remote from 'civilisation' largely do not suffer the illnesses such as cancer and heart disease which increasingly ravage the Western world. Such approaches would do much to improve the quality of human life - without causing suffering to animals.

On the eve of the twenty-first century the moral argument should in any case prevail. Human beings should reject the deliberate infliction of suffering on animals, and end vivisection.

Reproduced from LM issue 120, May 1999

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