I was very surprised to see a session at the Cheltenham Literature Festival on 10 October given over to naked, one-sided propaganda from a pharmaceutical industry-funded lobby group devoted to promoting painful and lethal experiments on animals – Understanding Animal Research.
For example, the synopsis implies that research has been moving away from animal experiments, when in fact a million more are being conducted every year in the UK compared to a decade ago. Moreover, their claim that animal research is boosting animal welfare – when it specifically involves the infliction of procedures that are likely to cause ‘pain, suffering, distress or lasting harm’ – is Orwellian doublespeak.
Indeed, it would appear that UAR have a deliberate policy of trying to conceal any pain and suffering involved in animal experiments. At a recent conference, a UAR spokesperson was candid enough to admit that when he gave school talks for UAR he didn’t bring up the central issue of the adverse effects endured by animals. This is important because polling data indicates that most people weigh up animal suffering against perceived potential benefits when deciding whether a particular animal experiment is acceptable. So evading the issue of animal suffering fundamentally distorts public understanding of animal research. Just like UAR’s vague spin about being reluctant to perform animal experiments (when their mission appears to be to defend animal experimentation in general as an institutionalised practice, come what may), the title of the organisation expresses an aspiration which, in my view, is diametrically opposed to their true intentions, particular in terms of their denial of the pain they inflict on animals. It seems like a tactic copied from the tobacco and fossil fuel industries in response to lung cancer and climate change respectively.
(I should say, I would love to be proved wrong and UAR start behaving in a more constructive and open manner, but I’m expecting any response to be snide and arrogant.)
It is unacceptable that no attempt has been made to encourage an informed, balanced debate on this issue of significant public interest. It’s a sad fact of life that any powerful lobby group, no matter how Machiavellian or unethical they are, will find it easy to gain a platform. But you would think that an event with pretensions to intellectual credibility would at least try to achieve balance? I’m not sure whether anyone is responsible for curating this festival or is it a case of who ever can afford to buy a slot can say what the hell they want?
But, then again, the related ‘Science’ Festival is sponsored by Pfizer, who have just had to pay out $60 million following bribery charges. In 2009, Pfizer had to pay out $2.3billion for mis-selling drugs. The whistleblower who exposed the fraud said: ‘At Pfizer, I was expected to increase profits at all costs, even when sales meant endangering lives.’ Yet law-abiding animal protection groups are the ones treated as pariahs while Pfizer’s PR budget seems to have a magical whitewashing effect for the festival organisers – or maybe they just aren’t bothered?
I’m currently finalising the manuscript for my new book, due to be published by Palgrave later this year, which will provide an unprecedented insight into animal experimentation and the myth of Britain’s ‘strict regulation’. It comes on the back of Uncaged’s publication of the leaked Imutran and Home Office documents which, among other things, showed clear breaches of ‘moderate’ severity limits when monkeys were ‘found dead’ or ‘in a collapsed state’.
Animals used in ‘moderate’ severity experiments are supposed to be put down before they suffer systemic illness or actually die as direct result of the ongoing experiment. Therefore, one would hope that researchers and the Home Office would admit that if an animal is ‘found dead’ because of the illness caused by the experiment, then their suffering exceeded the moderate severity limit. That’s if the regulatory system is meant to have any meaning at all.
Unfortunately, it turns out that such hope rests on the false assumption that the Home Office and the animal research industry are reasonably honest and law-abiding. Perhaps even more disturbing is the fact that bodies – such as the Ombudsman – who are meant to hold the Government to account, seem either too corrupt or too cowardly to do the right thing.
In December 2006, following a three year investigation hampered by staff absences* and, as explained below, an apparent difficulty in understanding the regulatory system, the Parliamentary and Health Service Ombudsman (PHSO or ‘Ombudsman’) laid before Parliament a final report that dismissed our complaint of maladministration in respect of the Home Office’s regulation of Imutran’s research. The term ‘whitewash’ doesn’t really do justice to the Ombudsman’s ruthless determination to give the Home Office a clean bill of health and discredit myself and Uncaged.
Uncaged’s complaint had argued that where procedures were allowed to continue until the point where the animals were found dead, instead of the animals being killed at or before the specified endpoint, then the endpoint and its corresponding moderate severity limit categorisation had been breached. In response, the Ombudsman stated:
‘In considering the explanations given by the Home Office, the Ombudsman’s staff have noted that death, in itself, does not appear to constitute a breach of the moderate severity limit within ‘The Guidance on the Operation of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986’. This view is supported by the ‘Report of the cost-benefit working group of the APC’ which considered ‘The weight assigned to “death of an animal” in itself (i.e. in absence of suffering)’. Within that heading they weighed various arguments put forward on whether a humane death (that is one without suffering) should be included in the cost/benefit assessment. A number of indirect ‘harms’ were put forward, which could be caused by the death of an animal, and that might be considered within the cost/benefit assessment. The report observed, however, that ‘whilst these potential harms are important and should be considered within the cost-benefit assessment, they are not relevant to the question of whether death in itself is a harm’ (paragraph 13).
Where do you start? The basic problem was that the Ombudsman’s reasoning fundamentally misconstrued the complaint and the role of endpoints in limiting suffering. Uncaged’s complaint was not based on the argument that ‘death, in itself… constitute[s] a breach of the moderate severity limit’. Instead, the complaint was based on the fact that animals were allowed to suffer up until the point of death, i.e. that death was the de facto endpoint in some instances. Uncaged did not assert that ‘death in itself’ counted as harm in this regulatory context. On the contrary, we argued that the animals should have been killed earlier in the procedure in order to comply with the moderate severity limit. In reviewing their decision, the Ombudsman dismissed these submissions from Uncaged, claiming that they did not add to previous complaint submissions (despite the fact they were novel arguments in response the Ombudsman’s final report).
Concerns about the adequacy of the PHSO investigation were intensified by subsequent comments by the-then Ombudsman Ann Abraham to the House of Commons Public Administration Select Committee in February 2011:
We might [investigate], if there was a wider public interest. I am trying to think of an example that would help you, and most of the examples I can think of are where the wider public interest is in the possibility of the Ombudsman saying there was not maladministration. One of the cases we looked at some years ago was a complaint, again referred by many MPs and many complainants, about the regulation of the animal experimentation industry, and concerns that the regulation was not being carried out properly. There was a lot of outrage, a lot of concern, and a lot of distress about all this, and some very unhappy people. We did a very thorough investigation and we were satisfied that actually everything was being done reasonably, in accordance with the requirements of the regulatory regime. We produced a public report to say that. Now actually the wider public interest was in the Government Department concerned being able to say “The Ombudsman has looked at this, and this is being done properly.” So there are lots of circumstances in which we would say that it is worth us doing this.
However, given the basic error at the heart of the Ombudsman’s exoneration of the Home Office and their repeated refusal to take Uncaged’s submissions seriously, these comments raise questions regarding at what point in the investigation did the Ombudsman decide there was a public interest in maintaining confidence in public institutions?
Relevant to this concern is the Ombudsman’s position on the issue of severity limit breaches in their draft decision letter issued on 4 May 2005, which differs markedly from their final report:
7. When considering complaints concerning decisions that are reliant on professional judgements, The Ombudsman would not normally seek to substitute her judgment for that of relevant expert. You will appreciate that there are many such decisions within this case, and this confines our legitimate interest to the overall process governing this area.
13. Whilst there would appear to be an element of subjectivity involved in the assessment of severity decisions about what severity limit to apply to the various procedures were a matter for the Inspectorate’s professional judgement and expertise. I do not see any basis upon which this Office could seek to question their assessment of the position (paragraph 7). In the light of that, and as I can see no evidence of administrative fault by the Home Office in their handling of this matter, I can see no grounds for the Ombudsman’s further intervention in the matter.
It is hard to reconcile the PHSO’s original decision to sidestep the issue of severity limits because it was deemed beyond their competency, with the subsequent assertion that they ‘did a very thorough investigation’ and were able to legitimately claim ‘The Ombudsman has looked at this and this is being done properly’. When considered in conjunction with the Ombudsman’s misrepresentation of the difference between the harm caused by ‘death-in–itself’ compared with ‘death–as-an-endpoint’ in the final report, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that the Ombudsman’s motivation for exonerating the Home Office had little to do with the facts of the case.
Rather it appears to confirm in stark terms the infallibility syndrome infecting the Westminster Village and the tribal loyalty exhibited by elite groups against justice and the interests of ordinary people.
*The PHSO’s draft decision letter dated 4 May 2005 stated: ‘[T]he investigation of the complaint has been interrupted on more than one occasion by illness, which has meant that the case has had to be considered by several different officers, which has led to significant delays’ (paragraph 2).
I’ve finally managed to wring a journal article out of my PhD thesis on the evolution of UK animal research policy. It is published in the latest edition of the journal ‘Society & Animals’, whose focus is self-explanatory.
The article is actually based on a paper I gave at the inspirational Minding Animals Conference which took place in Newcastle, Australia in July 2009, and for which I was honoured to be presented with the Best Conference Paper prize by Professor Peter Singer. You can download a copy of the article from here.
In a nutshell, the article provides shocking insights into the true level of suffering inflicted on animal in laboratories, as well as the connivance of researchers and the Home Office in evading the law and covering up wrongdoing.
These are some of the verbatim observations recorded by researchers as primates endured a lingering and agonising death as a result of xenotransplantation experiments:
• “Uncoordinated limb spasms” and “stroke”
• “in a collapsed state” and “found dead”
• “Gastro-intestinal toxicity, resulting in severe diarrhoea”
• “very distressed”
• “body and limb tremors”
• “grinding teeth, eyes rolling . . .”
We urgently need to learn the lessons of this scandal so we can prevent such futile cruelty under the updated law resulting from the new EU Directive on animal experiments.
Last Friday (22 July 2011), the Academy of Medical Sciences (AMS) – an association of scientists from industry, academia and government – released a report on experimentation involving the insertion of human material into nonhuman animals (‘Animals Containing Human Material’ [ACHM]). Media coverage interpreted the report as calling for ‘tighter regulation of animal tests’. However, the report’s recommendations are unlikely to make any practical difference to the current practice of weak regulation. On the contrary, by reinforcing established prejudices and behaviours, the report tends to promote both an expansion in animal experimentation and the persistence of this practice.
False assurances on animal welfare
Although it is presented as a ‘study of the scientific, social, ethical, safety and regulatory aspects of research involving animals, and non-human embryos, containing human material’, the language of the report reveals that it also has a significant political element and purpose.
It is seriously misleading for the report to assert that inserting human cells, tissue and genetic information into non-human animals and then experimenting on them, can in any way be consistent with ‘protecting their welfare’. On the contrary, these are actions that deliberately and knowingly endanger the welfare of these individuals through, for example, causing them to suffer painful and distressing diseases such as migraine, anxiety disorders, osteoporosis, diabetes, heart disease or cancer. In a domestic setting, such cruel treatment would be a criminal act.
The AMS decided to limit the scope of the report’s ethical analysis; they make the assumption that harmful and potentially harmful uses of non-human animals are generally morally justified. Therefore the report fails to justify why it is morally unacceptable to inflict pain, suffering and distress on living people but morally acceptable in the case of non-human animals.
This omission is an example of Lukes’ famous 2nd dimension of power, where social questions that might challenge powerful interest groups and the institutionalised social practices that they support are simply not addressed. As a consequence, in dealing with ethical issues, the report rejects analysis and reason in favour of a dogmatic approach rooted in ‘religious and ethnic traditions that draw on an array of sources such as canonical texts, authoritative readings, overlapping (even contradictory platitudes), community norms’ (Vance, 1992: 1718).
The report also misrepresents the previous ethics reports which it cites as a justification for its approach to ethical issues. For example, while the Nuffield Council on Bioethics report concluded that animal experiments can be morally acceptable, it cited major conditions and qualifications:
- ‘The involvement of animals in research cannot be justified simply by the fact that animals are used or abused in other ways…’
- ‘Genuine willingness is also required to test and, where necessary, revise one’s own moral framework.’
- ‘For moral justification of animal research… the question of why alternatives are not available and what is required to make them available must also be asked.’
Far from following in the footsteps of the Nuffield report, the approach taken by the ACHM report directly contradicts these recommendations. This is disappointing as the institutional members of the Nuffield Council (e.g. Wellcome Trust and the Medical Research Council) are also partners of the AMS. As is often the case, they fail to honour their more reflective ethical pronouncements in their lobbying and policy activities.
Maintaining weak regulation
The report misrepresents the way the regulatory framework is supposed to work and its ethical implications, possibly due to the lack of public policy expertise on both the Working Group and the Review Group. Thus, in the press release announcing the report, chairman Professor Bobrow states: ‘The very great majority of [possible ACHM] experiments present no issues beyond the general use of animals in research and these should proceed under current regulation; a limited number of experiments should be permissible subject to scrutiny by the expert body we recommend…’ (emphasis added).
In fact, the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 and associated Guidance state that programmes of potentially painful animal experiments can only proceed if they pass a cost-benefit test. However the working group appears to contradict its own descriptions of a ‘strict’ regulatory system by assuming that animal experimentation proposals are/should be automatically approved rather than subject to independent cost-benefit analysis. This common assumption in pro-animal research statements reveals how the ‘regulatory’ system actually operates in practice – animal experimentation proposals are generally rubber-stamped rather than independently assessed. In practice, the law and regulations mainly serve to give the impression of strict regulation, and hence conceal and enshrine the real lack of consideration for animal welfare.
On the one hand, this call for automatic approval of animal experiments reinforces the prejudices about human moral supremacy and the moral status of nonhuman animals that are implicit in such a cavalier approach to animal research. But, of more practical consequence, the report’s lack of consideration for animal welfare further weakens scientists’ motivation to meet the ethical imperative to work towards a world where nonhuman animals are not subject to pain, distress and death in biomedical research (again, a Nuffield recommendation).
Media coverage claiming that the report calls for tighter regulation of animal tests arises from the preceding quote from Professor Bobrow. In the context of the need for a rapid response to the report’s publication, such an interpretation is understandable. However, a closer reading of the report – with the benefit of relevant policy expertise – shows this to be dubious.
In the context of an assumption that such proposals will be authorised, the proposed additional levels of scrutiny add little more to current processes whereby the Animal Procedures Committee already considers: ‘applications of any kind raising novel or contentious issues, or giving rise to serious societal concerns’. Apart from providing some definition for this category, it is hard to see how the ACHM report actually adds to the current regime (or intends to for that matter). It raises the question of whether the report is in some respects a PR exercise: falsely reassuring the public that animal experimentation is strictly regulated in order to prevent that very situation from occurring.