Extremists are not an excuse to ignore animal welfare
Science must engage with the ethics and reality of experimenting on animals, says Jackie Ballard
Thursday May 18, 2006
A powerful spotlight has been cast on the perceived rights and wrongs of using animals in research by the prime minister, who has signed a petition declaring support for animal experiments (Blair backs secrecy law to thwart animal activists, May 15).
Mr Blair is quoted as saying: "We are now seeing very welcome signs of both individuals and firms being ready to stand up publicly to intimidation and making clear this extremist fringe is out of touch with public opinion."
Yet while the public is generally appalled by the unacceptable actions of extremists, large numbers of people have legitimate concerns regarding the suffering of laboratory animals and these cannot be ignored.
People involved in medical research should be able to work without fear of intimidation or attack. However, it is disappointing that Mr Blair did not take this opportunity to support those of us seeking more rigorous assessment of the need and justification for animal experiments.
The government must prioritise increased investment in, and commitment to, the development and implementation of humane alternatives that will replace animals. This is important on both scientific and animal welfare grounds.
It is wrong to focus on the perceived benefits of animal research and gloss over the associated animal suffering. The petition does not acknowledge the pain and distress that animal experiments can cause, or the fact that most of the 2.8m animals used every year are ultimately killed.
As you reported, the petition says: "Medical research using animals, carried out to the highest standards of care and welfare and where there is no alternative available, should continue in the UK." People are being asked to support this statement with no explanation of what these "high standards" are, or to what extent they are implemented. In the RSPCA's experience, standards can vary widely - and not all are high, or even reach the level of "good".
It could be implied from this declaration that all animal experiments are undertaken with the direct aim of finding cures for life-threatening human or animal diseases. This is not true: animals are also used for research undertaken purely for scientific interest; for tests to assess the safety of substances such as agricultural chemicals or food additives; and for the development of products that industry profits from.
Fortunately, constructive talks between individuals and organisations across the spectrum are taking place. The usual outcome is overwhelming support for the principle that animal use should be replaced wherever possible, and animal suffering and numbers should be reduced, and welfare improved.
The Nuffield Council on Bioethics reached such a conclusion when its working party on animal research agreed that "a world in which the important benefits of research could be achieved without causing pain, suffering, distress, lasting harm or death to animals involved must be the ultimate goal".
The scientific community must not use the actions of extremists as an excuse to avoid prioritising this vital aim.
· Jackie Ballard is the director general of the RSPCA email@example.com
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