Life, Ethics & Independence V – Animal Rights & Animal Testing

(Pic: The Guardian)

The next look at medical/scientific ethics and independence visits one of the more emotive topics: the issues of animal rights and policy challenges surrounding animal testing and vivisection.

Do other animals have “rights”?

There are various stances relating to how humans should treat other animals, whether in the wild or in captivity. For example, pets are technically “in captivity”, but you might react differently to an endangered species being kept captive in a zoo, or the same to both. I’ll come back to zoos and circuses another time, as there’s a lot to discuss there in their own right.As for the stances themselves: 

  • Animal Welfare – Concern about the treatment of animals in terms of health and well being. It could include conservationism, where humans act as benevolent guardians or treat other animals with respect, but not as an equal. Also, concern for animal welfare is beneficial to humans –  domesticated farm animals, working animals like police dogs and natural pest removers.
  • Animal Rights – Other animals have“personhood” in the same way humans do. Denying animals the same rights as humans – to varying degrees – is seen as a form of prejudice, sometimes dubbed “speciesism”.
  • Animal Liberation – A more fundamentalist strand of animal rights, which views other animals as being actively oppressed by humanity and should be liberated by (usually, but not always) non-violent means.

I personally lean towards animal welfare. I don’t think you can afford “rights” – as in a “power to do something” – to an entity that has no concept of “rights” or never will. There can be such a thing as children’s rights because at some point they’ll understand what “rights” are – plus it’s in a species own interest to protect their offspring from harm if they have the power to do so.
Having said that, it’s widely accepted that other animals have consciousness and have concepts of pain, fear, loyalty and in some cases things like shame – any dog owner would tell you that!So it’s equally wrong to suggest that non-humans don’t possess self-awareness. It just isn’t “sapience”– a heightened level of self-interest that currently only humans verifiably possess, and leads to the creation of science, arts, and even contemplating your place in the ecosystem in the first place.That doesn’t mean humans are “above nature”, in fact believing that would show a misunderstanding of how things like evolution work. We’re still put in harms way other species, even tiny things like viruses.However, armed with sapience and specialist tools, humans can effectively do whatever we want. That’s a unique position on Earth, but that power comes with great responsibility and great policy and ethical challenges.

How should we relate to other animals?

This depends on your viewpoint. Another animal could be nothing more to you than another resource. It could be a non-human friend. It could be something that should be left well alone.

Humanity’s relationship with other animals usually revolves around the concept of “utility” – how useful they are to us, or whether they pose a risk to our interests. Animal rights simply doesn’t buy into that, because it treats other animals as property rather than individuals with self-ownership.

There are shades of grey that confuse things though.

Using animals for clothing in arctic/sub-arctic regions might be the only practical way to stay warm. I’m not talking about “a bit chilly”, I’m talking temperatures that would kill in minutes. It’s usually done sustainably too, with humans only taking what they need each time.You can argue that there’s no similar justification for a factory-farmed real fur coat being worn when it’s just below freezing in Paris or Milan. Moscow, perhaps yes.

“Fashion” isn’t a utility – it’s not necessary, it’s just a social statement.“Not freezing to death” is a utility that might necessitate the use of an animal for your very survival. Are both wrong? Or is one significantly less “wrong” than the other?

This becomes complicated in moral/ethical arguments about diet. Eating is an essential utility, but it’s not necessarily a utility to eat meat when there are ready alternatives. However, humans have just mechanised natural predatory behaviour in a way only humans can. Would it be “more moral” – based on the fur argument – to go out and hunt for your own meat instead of buying pre-packaged versions?

Anything humans do is part of this natural cycle. It’s just we have better tools, and we’ve become too efficient at it for our own good, so the planet suffers as a result. The same arguments – the ends having to justify the means – will inevitably apply to animal testing.

Animals in research

The use of animals in research is heavily restricted in the UK. Everyone working with an animal needs a licence, the scientific project needs a licence and the institution hosting the project needs a separate licence too. So it has to be licensed by the Home Office three times. In many cases it also has to pass ethics panels.Other animals are used as a scientific model. That means they’re used to simulate something else, like a human disease. The use of an animal as a scientific model has to be justified in license applications, and you also have to prove that you considered alternatives, or considered not using animals at all.

For example, fruit flys(Drosophila) are usually used for genetics experiments as they breed very quickly and have a very simple and easy to manipulate genetic component. Zebrafish are becoming increasingly popular for the same reasons, and they also have particular regenerative ability that’s important in cancer and tissue regeneration research.

Rodents – especially mice – are used for more complicated medical experiments because they share between 90-95% of the human genome, while their genes associated with disease are identical.

It’s rare that any animal larger than a rat is used, and just 0.1% of animal research involves primates – usually macaques. It’s illegal to use any “great ape”(chimps, gorillas, orangutans etc.) in medical experiments in the UK and other European nations. It’s not in the United States, though it’s been suspended.

Animal testing for cosmetics was banned across the European Union in 2009, and a ban on the sale of cosmetic products tested on animals across the EU came into effect in March. It’s unclear whether these bans will continue after Brexit.

Again, that’s probably about weighing the value of the outcome with the ethics of using an animal in the first place. When it comes to making people look good – animals are out. When it comes to developing new medical treatments – animals are in. You can decide for yourselves on things like diet and fashion, based on your own beliefs and what you buy.

Why don’t we use humans instead?

One of the big arguments against animal testing is that it doesn’t exactly match a human. It’s suggested that only between 5-25% of human and non-human test results match, and 95% of medicines trialled on other animals are unsuccessful or scrapped when it comes to humans.

Well, there’s a reason for that. Developing new drugs or treatments is an incredibly hard, laborious process that can take decades and doesn’t always work. It’s science. It’s not about being right “first time”, it’s more like a jigsaw puzzle. It’s not like coming up with a new crisp flavour.

All medicines are, at some point, tested or trialled on humans. It’s just that another animal is used early in the process.

Usually, people involved in trials have whatever illness is being targeted. Sometimes it’s done voluntarily, sometimes people get paid a small fee. It’s usually done to test for side-effects in humans, while the use of other animals would’ve determined if they were safe treatments or if the underlying ideas are correct.

Using, for example, convicted criminals would still be morally dubious. They would likely expect to receive compensation – i.e. reduced sentences. Is that worth it for the sake of dropping soap in their eyes?

There are examples where nations have banned the use of other animals in early stage medical research, or ordered the banning of vivisection too. They used humans instead, all of whom they considered criminals, based at special facilities like this one. We generally don’t consider it an option anymore.

It’s usually much easier and quicker to induce a disease in a mouse, and I’m not even going to touch the ethics of inducing diseases like cancer in a human, either by force or voluntarily, criminal or non-criminal.

As for “professional” human clinical trialists, the sums of money offered to participate are paltry for a reason. The only people who would do it over and over again willingly are likely to be the poor and desperate. You don’t want to create a marketplace for that sort of thing.

There’s hope that we might be able to create accurate human-based scientific models for diseases by using stem cells to create organs or systems to test theories and treatments on. Very realistic dummies have also been developed for the US military to practice trauma surgery in the field (graphic image warning). Computer models alone won’t be enough, as at some point you will have to test it on something living with real physiological responses. Should that be a rat or a human?

The policy challenges

This is a very difficult area to tread through. The Assembly already has powers in some aspects of animal welfare under its rural affairs remit, so there’s nothing stopping them coming up with an Animal Welfare Bill if that’s what they want to do, or if a member introduces it themselves.

Vivisection (testing which involves surgery, carried out on live/anaesthetised animals) is explicitly non-devolved, and presumably the same thing goes with regard animal testing too.

I think the UK already has some pretty robust regulations regarding this, so I don’t think there’s any real need to change them post-independence or if the powers were devolved.

  • Regulations could be tightened on the treatment of animals in research, ensuring stronger minimum standards, better inspection regimes and stricter penalties for violations.
  • The ban on great ape research should be maintained, and possibly expanded to include other animals as long as there’s consensus across the board to do so.
  • More funding could be provided to develop alternatives to using animals as scientific models, but without taking away any existing funding from medical research involving animals.
  • Tighten regulations on live experiments, including de rigueur use of anaesthesia unless it’s absolutely impossible to do so.
  • Animal experimentation in the private sector could be strictly linked to research by universities (to try and avoid duplication of experiments), or be required to pass university ethics panels.

Trying to outright ban vivisection or general animal testing (for medical research) would probably end a significant chunk of medical research in Wales and damage the reputation of our universities around the world. Something like that would have to be done globally, or the work will just move to places where there are no regulations on the treatment of animals in research.

Interestingly though, we could learn something from the likes of Ecuador and Bolivia, who’ve included animals and nature in their new constitutions. I wouldn’t object to including animals in a written Welsh constitution. By that I mean a constitutional duty to “respect” animal welfare via good stewardship of the environment and a constitutional right to biodiversity, clean water, minimised air pollution and restoration of damaged environments.

Shades of grey

Scientific research is resistant – almost immune – from outside, popular pressures. Appeals to emotion don’t work, neither will anti-science activism and propaganda. That makes science very different to politics, where popular pressures do work. You cause problems when you excessively try to mix the two.

If I’m honest, I don’t like the idea of animal testing, but I realise its importance in medical research – at least until there are serious alternatives for all diseases, and while everything is done to minimise the use of animals. I loath cars too, I don’t like shopping or many aspects of the economic system either, but I see them as necessary for the same reasons. They work. We simply don’t know any better.

We’ve moved forward by banning animal-tested cosmetics in Europe. However, at some point in the future, once alternatives are found, we’re probably going to be looked back upon as barbarians for using animals for reasons like this. I still think, personally, the results are worth it.