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Animal Experimentation – Indispensable or Indefensible?

Scientists have for centuries sought to increase their understanding of the natural world through experiments on live animals – and for as long, critics have argued that such experiments are cruel, unethical and unecessary. But has such research contributed to human progress, particularly in the field of medicine, which could not have been achieved through other means – and if so, can it not be justified on the basis that our needs are of greater significance than those of animals? If researchers believe, on the basis of evidence, that their experiments on live animals could help protect human lives, how can they justify not pursuing them? Or should an animal’s wellbeing never be sacrificed for a human’s? If there are circumstances in which live experiments can be acceptable, what controls are necessary to ensure their integrity?

Michelle Thew of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection debates the issues with Tom Holder of Speaking of Research.

Tom Holder

Speaking of Research

Tom Holder became involved in animal research advocacy as a student at Oxford University.

In 2006, amidst an escalation of intimidation and violence against scientists by animal rights extremists, he played a major part in the formation and activities of Pro-Test, a student movement in support of well-regulated research on animals.

In 2008 Tom moved to the US where he founded Speaking of Research to generate student and faculty support for scientists conducting animal research while also informing the public of the important role that such research plays.

He returned to the UK in October 2008 and is a regular contributor to the Speaking of Research news blog. In 2009, he was instrumental in the creation of Pro-Test for Science, which stood up for researchers at UCLA.

Speaking of Research is an advocacy group which provides accurate information about the importance of animal testing in medical and veterinary science.

It aims to challenge animal rights dominance of the issue by participating in debates on campuses across the country and using the internet to provide encouragement, information and support to all who care about medical progress.

Speaking of Research reaches across geographic, institutional and disciplinary boundaries to provide the research community with news, ideas for outreach and education programmes and discussion of recent findings from animal-based research.

It also provides accurate and accessible information about how animal research is conducted and how it contributes to scientific and medical progress.

Michelle Thew

British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection

Michelle Thew is Chief Executive of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV), the world's leading organisation campaigning to end animal experiments, and Cruelty Free International, the global campaign to end animal testing for cosmetics.

For over 15 years Michelle has championed the cause of animals in laboratories across the world, speaking on their behalf at meetings in both the UK and EU Parliaments, and taking the message to media, regulators and industry representatives from Europe and the USA to Asia.

Michelle is known for her dynamic and innovative approach to ending animal testing, and is one of the most respected and accomplished individuals in the animal protection movement.

The BUAV has campaigned for over a hundred years to end experiments on animals. It is a widely respected authority on animal testing issues and is frequently called upon by governments, media, corporations and official bodies for its advice and expert opinion.

The BUAV builds relationships with business leaders and decision-makers. It also analyses legislation and sits on decision-making panels around the globe to act as the voice for animals in laboratories. The BUAV's London-based team coordinates an international network of scientists, lawyers, campaigners, investigators, researchers, political lobbyists and supporters.

The BUAV, which relies entirely on the generosity of its supporters, is a member of several international coalitions working to protect animals from experiments and manages the Leaping Bunny programme which certifies products free from animal testing under the Humane Standards.


Animal Research Saves Human Lives

What has animal research ever done for us?

Take a group of thirty British children - a typical classroom size in the UK. One or two will be or become diabetic. Two or three will develop asthma. Many will need a blood transfusion at some point. Most will receive anaesthetics during their lifetime (around six million general anaesthetics are administered each year). All are likely to be prescribed antibiotics at some time (around 40 million prescriptions are issued per year). All will be vaccinated against diphtheria, tetanus, polio, meningitis C, measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) and even a child whose parents refuse such vaccines will benefit from the immunity through the vaccination of other children.

Next time you go to the doctor, consider those numbers and spare a thought for the animals that made it possible for those thirty people to lead healthy lives. The history of scientific discoveries made possible by animal research is exemplary: insulin (dogs and rabbits), polio vaccine (monkeys), anaesthetics (rabbits), blood transfusion (monkeys, dogs), antibiotics to cure tuberculosis (guinea pigs), asthma treatment (frogs and guinea pigs), meningitis vaccine (mice), deep brain stimulation (monkeys), penicillin (mice); the list goes on.

You might notice that most of these developments are decades old. So what has animal research done for us recently?

Herceptin, originally developed in mice, has had a significant impact on the survival rates for breast cancers. As a mouse antibody (now humanised) it would not have come about without the use of animal research. Mice, far and away the most common animals used in scientific research, have also been used in conjunction with stem cell research to create a treatment for macular degeneration (one of the leading causes of blindness). Research pioneered in mice has now been used successfully to treat humans.

Humans are compassionate beings and it is this very compassion which demands that we continue to do lifesaving animal research. Around two decades ago AIDS was a death sentence. Today, developments in Highly Active Anti-retroviral Treatments (HAART), created through the various animal models of HIV, mean sufferers can expect an ordinary life expectancy. It is compassion for our fellow human being that necessitates a continuation of animal research.

However, it's not just humans who benefit from animal testing; almost all human diseases have a similar or equivalent disease in another species. 90% of veterinary medicines used to treat animals are the same or very similar to those developed to treat human patients. Surgical procedures, such as the removal of tumours and other intrusive procedures, are used in humans as well as animals and tend to be developed and refined in animals. Recently, studies on wild squirrels have discovered a virus that may be responsible for the decline in red squirrel populations. Hopefully this may also lead to treatments being found.

Sadly, animal research is frequently misrepresented. Pictures of monkeys in terrible conditions circulate the internet. But they are often decades old and fail to address a few simple facts, namely that (1) rodents, fish, amphibians and birds account for approximately 98% of animals used in research; primates account for less than 0.1% (2) the UK's animal research regulations are the strictest in the world (3) animal research may only be carried out where there is no suitable alternative (4) animal research has contributed to nearly every medical breakthrough of the last century.

Scientists are not just guided by government regulations and the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act. Through the use of the 3Rs, British research facilities are leading the way in continued improvement in the conditions for animals in labs. Refinement (better conditions for animals and better training for those using them), Reduction (reducing the number of animals used) and Replacement (using non-animal methods wherever possible) are the cornerstones of good science, ensuring that the best research can be done with the minimum suffering for animals. All research in British labs must be approved by an ethics committee - which includes a veterinarian and usually a lay member of the public - to ensure that animals are only used where there is no other option.

Given the high standards of care in laboratories across the UK and the importance of animal research to the development of modern cures, it is essential that scientists are allowed to continue their research without harassment or intimidation from animal rights activists. Thankfully, opinion surveys illustrate the consistent support of over 80% of the British public for well-regulated medical research. Furthermore, 88% of doctors agreed that safety testing in animals must continue.


Ends Which Cannot Justify Means

I suspect that we share more common ground than may be supposed. The BUAV is strongly in favour of science - “humane, rigorous, evidence-based science. I imagine Speaking of Research is too. Research should be given a very high societal priority, with funding to match. We also believe passionately in the importance of finding cures for human (and animal) diseases, and that products should be as safe as possible. I am sure we agree that health plays a crucial role in a happy and fulfilled life.

So far so uncontroversial. Less obvious is my assumption that we probably agree that, despite the overwhelming importance of these objectives, there are limits to what should be done to attain them.

Some people draw the line at embryonic stem cell research but I am thinking specifically about non-consensual experiments on humans. Sadly, recent history provides several examples of such experiments. Dr Mengele'™s obscene research on Jews in Auschwitz and the decades-long syphilis experiments on black men in Tuskegee, Alabama which only ended in the early 1970s are just two. In the current era, the systematic failure to obtain properly informed consent to clinical trial participation by people in the developing world - of which some drug companies have been accused - falls into the same broad category.

The BUAV strenuously opposes such experiments. The fact that they may advance medical science (as they are much more likely to do than experiments on animals) is no justification. It is simply not fair on the victims.

Incidentally, I was shocked to learn that Article 27 of the Declaration of Helsinki which governs clinical trials states that "œ[incompetent persons] must not be included in a research study that has no likelihood of benefit for them unless it is intended to promote the health of the population represented by the potential subject" (my emphasis). There is a rider - glaringly absent with animal research - that the research must involve minimal risk and minimal burden. Nevertheless, Article 27 breaches the sacred principle that humans must consent to being experimental subjects and, where consent is not possible, the experiment must be intended to benefit the individual concerned (such that consent can reasonably be presumed).

Does Speaking of Research condemn Article 27? If not, it must logically also support experiments on other non-consenting humans. But if it does condemn it, what is so different about experiments on non-human animals?

The key ethical factors are identical with experiments on animals and those on people. The victim on whom suffering, often great suffering, is knowingly inflicted does not consent (and cannot be presumed to consent) and does not stand to benefit.  Society is very inconsistent in its approach to ethics. With animal research, there is a utilitarian approach -“ the trade off of costs (to those animals used in experiments) and hoped-for benefits (for others, usually humans, sometimes other animals). With non-consensual experiments on humans, by contrast, the approach is one of principle. Article 27 aside, society says it is wrong, irrespective of benefit for others.

It is that inconsistency which is indefensible. But perhaps supporters of animal experimentation can defend it in terms more sophisticated and principled than 'œyes, but we'™re humans and they'™re only animals'.  It is often argued that humans are more important than animals. Even assuming that was provable by objective criteria, since when did greater perceived value justify causing pain to the less valuable? We don'™t allow brain surgeons or political leaders, for their own benefit, to cause physical pain to prisoners or the unemployed or anyone else society perceives (wrongly) to be of less value.

'People are more intelligent than animals' you may say. Well, not always; other animals, such as nonhuman primates, can be more intelligent than people with dementia or other brain injury. More importantly, relative intelligence is ethically irrelevant. As a society, we quite rightly protect people of very low intelligence from exploitation.

The truth is that we experiment on animals not because it is ethically justifiable but because we have the power to subjugate them. Humankind really should have moved on from 'might is right'™ as a guide to behaviour.

I have deliberately not yet touched on whether animal experiments actually represent good science or on the fact that so many of the nearly four million experiments conducted every year in the UK (well over 100 million worldwide) could realistically lead to no significant benefit. For the moment I want to set out our ethical stall. Hoped-for benefit cannot justify the otherwise unjustifiable.


Michelle€'s opening argument is based on a single idea, that animals have equal moral status to humans. I believe this view is indefensible, but let us explore it further.

What would it mean?

Some conclusions are easy to draw - we must all stop wearing leather and become vegetarian. Yet this would not be enough to satisfy moral equivalence. You must not kill a mosquito, you must not cure your child's tapeworm, you must not accept the use of mice to eradicate polio from the face of the planet.

Michelle's straw man search for the individual characteristics that creates moral difference is in vain. We would not be comfortable with someone kicking a dead cat or using human remains in a child's science project. But few would mind if we threw a rock in a river - all three are, characteristically, inanimate objects. Humans grant moral status.

We do not research using animals simply because we can. It is the human ability to empathise with others and to have the tools to confront disease by means of scientific research that calls for us to act in the face of so much suffering. It is a moral dilemma that must be confronted.

Polls show that the British population is abundantly sure (over 80%) that using a small number of animals in carefully regulated research should be permitted in order to carry out medical research that can improve the lives of millions of both humans and animals.

It is worth reminding ourselves that humans' moral status is what allows us to care for the suffering of other species.

By the same token, we have a responsibility to treat animals with respect. Scientists use as few animals as possible, use replacements if possible and minimise the suffering of animals (for example through the use of anaesthetics) whenever they can. This is ethical research.


There are two fundamental flaws in Tom'€™s argument that humans have benefited greatly from animal experiments.

First, he deploys bald assertion, not evidence. Animal researchers are notoriously reluctant to subject animal experiments to rigorous review. A few facts: not one of the 85 or more candidate AIDS vaccines or over 100 stroke remedies tested successfully€™ on primates has worked in human patients. Indeed, the drug trials which hospitalised human volunteers at Northwick Park had been tested on primates at 500 times the dose, with no hint of a problem.

Scientific literature is full of similar examples. The US Food and Drug Administration says that over 90% of clinical trials fail even though the treatments had passed animal tests on efficacy and safety. Toxicology and cancer research have appalling records.

Tom confuses the use of animals with their efficacious use. It is also inevitable that, because of poor interspecies correlation, potentially valuable treatments will be missed. Had penicillin been tested in guinea-pigs, whom penicillin kills, it might never have been sanctioned.

Second, Tom assumes that because (he says) something produces benefit, therefore it is ethically justified. If that were right, we would experiment non-consensually on humans who naturally provide a far better model for human diseases.

A great many animal experiments have nothing to do with curing diseases. They may involve testing products such as car refrigerants, or terrifying wild seals with loud noises (St Andrew's University) or are so exploratory that researchers'€™ articles claim no practical application. The scale of suffering of sentient animals is mind-boggling. Sadly, available non-animal alternatives are frequently ignored.

Tom's use of public opinion is selective. Numerous surveys support our case even though researchers and the Government refuse to disclose crucial facts detailing the horror of animal experiments.


Animals are an imperfect model for humans. So are cell cultures, computer models, microdosing and every other complementary method we care to name. Even results from one human will not necessarily apply to the next. We have an incredibly complex physiology, and it often requires a similarly complex physiology to understand what goes on in our bodies. This makes animal research invaluable.

This reality has been confirmed by every major independent enquiry in the last decade. The House of Lords Select Committee agreed in 2002, the Animal Procedures Committee in 2003, the Nuffield Council on Bioethics in 2005 and the Weatherall Report in 2006. Seems clear; apparently not.

Michelle refers to the serious adverse side effects suffered by Stage 1 clinical trial volunteers in the Northwick trial disaster. But it is safety tests on animals which make such events so incredibly rare.

Furthermore, Michelle does not mention that 90% of drugs fail at every stage of drug development including non-animal tests (i.e. "alternatives" to animal experiments), animal tests and clinical trials. Yet she uses this failure to recommend removing one of the crucial layers that increase volunteer safety in clinical trials.

The BUAV misdirects the issue when it talks about the tiny amount of research that is done for non-medical purposes. Although "terrifying" wild seals may make for dramatic headlines, the work being carried out by the Sea Mammal Research Unit to develop new Active Acoustic Units that keep seals away from fish farms without harming them ought to be a worthy cause for those who advocate for animal welfare.

The BUAV has made it abundantly clear that it does not agree with the use of animals for basic, "exploratory" research. Yet medical history is a catalogue of breakthroughs made possible thanks to our constantly improving knowledge of physiology and the pathologies that affect it.

The research that yields this knowledge, much of which uses animals and other model organisms, may not have a clear medical objective when originally undertaken. For instance, studying genes that regulate embryonic development in fruit flies may not seem very relevant to human health. But this work led to the development of Vismodegib, a drug recently approved to treat basal cell carcinoma.

The BUAV seems to have constructed a grand conspiracy theory according to which pharmaceuticals, governments, scientists and the medical community are all conspiring to suppress the "truth" that animal research doesn't work. Similarly, the findings of highly respected polling organisations like Gallup and Mori, both of which show the public firmly behind animal research, must be "selective" because they don't meet BUAV's expectations.

What's the reality? Understanding disease is a complex challenge, but there is no denying that animal research has contributed immensely to alleviating the suffering of humans and animals alike. It's not perfect, but it is the best we have for certain questions in medical science.

In a country where we eat 900 million chickens and 1,500 million fish every year, 3.8 million animal procedures (96% on mice, rats, birds and fish) seem a small price to pay for medical progress.


Small number of animals used in research? Approaching four million are used in the UK every year, well over 100 million worldwide. If it were children made to suffer, would Tom still call it a “small number”?

Treat animals with respect? Tom has a very strange concept of respect. In 2011 in the UK, 425,030 animals were used in cancer research - often deliberately given cancer and then subjected to highly unpleasant experimental 'treatment' or left untreated; 1.6 million were bred with genetic malformations; 392,393 were used in poisoning tests, frequently lethal;  21,884 experiments  involved interference with the brain; 2,880 induced psychological stress and 4,203 physical trauma.

The new EU law contemplates inescapable electric shocks (to induce helplessness), complete isolation for prolonged periods of social species like dogs or primates, forced swimming or exercise tests to exhaustion,  destruction of animals’ immune system - and so much more.

Tom says that “humans’ moral status is what allows us to care for the suffering of other species”. Precisely. So why abuse moral authority by deliberately causing suffering?

Strictly regulated? Tell that to the marmosets at Cambridge left unattended overnight after surgery deliberately inflicting brain damage (with predictable consequences), with their suffering labelled as just ‘moderate’ by the Home Office despite multiple appalling symptoms. Or the macaques at Newcastle forced by chair and head restraint and severe thirst to perform repetitive tests day after day, month after month (for no obvious benefit). Or the hundreds of thousands of mice suffering "in extremis" (the words of an independent review) through being injected with botox (which is substantially used for cosmetics). Or the dogs and guinea-pigs bred in pitiful conditions.

All this came to light only through BUAV undercover investigations in the UK. The system is still deeply secretive. What does that tell us?

Alternatives? We have numerous examples of their not being used, despite the law. The result: thousands of scientifically unnecessary experiments.

Opinion evidence? In a YouGov poll in 2009, huge majorities across six EU countries including the UK wanted primate, dog and cat experiments causing suffering (i.e. all of them) ended and bans on severe suffering for any species and anything not related to serious or life-threatening human conditions.  The law is completely out of step. Another poll found 76% opposed to experiments causing pain or suffering (as all licensed experiments are liable to do). The 80% figure Tom quotes is deeply flawed.

The ethics? This has nothing to do with mosquitoes, tapeworm or dead cats and everything to with the pain and distress of sentient animals, forced to suffer for the presumed benefit of others.

Gandhi saw vivisection as the “blackest of all black crimes”.  Voltaire, Schopenhauer, Bentham, JS Mill, Russell, Singer and many other philosophers have advocated rights for non-human animals.

It is high time society caught up. Surely humankind should be able to do better than this dreadful catalogue of deliberately-inflicted suffering.