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?
Just reading a fascinating paper by Dr Katy Wilkinson (Newcastle University) and colleagues on the politics of the Foot and Mouth outbreak in 2001. It shows how the National Farmers Union (NFU) largely dictated the Government response – led by the infamous Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (MAFF) – to the FMD outbreak. Among other demands, the NFU called for countryside footpaths be closed, despite there being evidence from previous FMD events showing the walking public had no role in spreading the disease. I get the sense this deflected attention and blame from the farming industry. As a result, other sectors of the rural economy were unnecessarily decimated: between 2001–2005 it caused estimated £355 million loss to farming, compared with a staggering £2.1 billion loss to tourism.
The NFU vigorously opposed vaccination in favour of the mass slaughter of animals, the vast majority of which were not infected. This stance seems to have been motivated partly by financial considerations – it would be quicker to resume exports to Europe if culling was used. But there also seems to be a kneejerk reaction to simply kill animals whenever a problem arises.
I’m reading this on the day the Government has signalled a return to the bad old days of MAFF with an extremely farmer-centric rural policy which, as history tells us (remember BSE as well?), could have catastrophic consequences for other parts of the rural economy, animal welfare and public health. The FMD fiasco has chilling echoes of the current NFU/Govt determination to slaughter badgers in the face of contrary scientific evidence.
However, there is one passage in the paper which very succinctly expresses the massive political problems faced by animal protection groups, which I think we must take heed of. Indeed, it reflects the thinking behind the formation of our new think tank and policy research organisation, the IASJ.
“The tactics employed by the NFU over the previous two decades in responding to the pressure from environmental groups critical of intensive agricultural practices demonstrate such anticipation and reaction. As Smith suggests, the NFU has capitalized on the poor resource base of many environmental groups which subsequently renders them unable to concentrate their efforts on a single issue for a long period of time; as a result, farmers need only resist pressure for a finite period of time before the pressure group and media spotlights turn elsewhere (1990a, p. 193).”
Wilkinson K. et al, (2010) ‘Beyond Policy Networks: Policy Framing and the Politics of Expertise in the 2001 Foot and Mouth Disease Crisis’. Public Administration Vol 88 pp331-345.
Smith, M.J. (1990a). The Politics of Agricultural Support in Britain: The Development of the Agricultural Policy Community. Aldershot: Dartmouth.
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.
This is my first post on my blog, which will predominantly focus on how we humans treat other animals, especially the ethics of such treatment and how politics affects our impact on them. I’ll also be talking about social justice issues within the human sphere. Indeed, undemocratic and biased policy-making often contributes to the abuse of nonhumans.
In my view, how we treat the weakest and most vulnerable is the ultimate test of our humanity. Human beings are responsible for killing an estimated 58 billion animals a year for food, the vast majority for reasons of gluttony rather than subsistence. An estimated 200 million animals are imprisoned in laboratories and subject to experiments which are likely to cause significant pain and distress. In other words, nonhumans are, generally, the most vulnerable to our violence.
We are, if we really put our minds to it, reasonable creatures capable of moral reflection and action (although our social environment does play a major role in shaping attitudes). By resisting the opportunity to exploit our power over others, we realise our potential for moral progress. And if we can act morally towards other species, then our character and culture is likely to be well-disposed to peaceful coexistence with our fellow humans.
The blog title ‘Justice, not just us’ highlights the core of the controversy over animals’ moral status. I’ve studied animal ethics for twenty years and every attempt to provide a rational and consistent justification for abusing animals fails. They inevitably collapse into arbitrary, prejudicial discrimination against nonhumans. This is because there is no single morally relevant characteristic held by all humans and no nonhuman sentient creatures – known as the argument from marginal cases.
A fascinating paper by an American scientist called Dr Richard Vance, published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (1992, Vol 268: 1715-1719), attempts to analyse animal rights ethics while defending animal experimentation. Vance acknowledges that ‘the charge that [animal rights theorists] are motivated primarily by emotion is unconvincing to anyone who takes the time to read their work and is familiar with modern ethics’.
In fact, animal rights theory emerges from the “mainstream” analytical ethics approach. This has been the dominant tradition in ethics research in the English–speaking world. It eschews emotion in favour of objective analysis, rooted in reason that seeks to apply ethical concepts such as justice in a fair and consistent manner. To justify different treatment in two separate cases, morally relevant differences must be shown. We should not arbitrarily favour or persecute others.
So how does Vance get from this position to defending painful animal research? Funnily enough he simply rejects ethics altogether. Instead, he states his preference for, and I quote, ‘religious and ethnic traditions that draw on an array of sources such as canonical texts, authoritative readings, overlapping (even contradictory platitudes), community norms’. I wonder whether he would have accepted the ‘community norms’ of Germany in the late 1930s?
But surely how we treat others is at least as important, and demands at least as much care and rigour, as analysis into understanding biological phenomena or any other scientific endeavour? It seems extraordinary and a startling example of denial that an intelligent scientist such as Dr Vance prefers to cling to irrational dogma rather than engage in logical analysis and strive for consistency and fairness. Indeed, the same charge could be laid at the door of all promoters of animal research. At root, I believe that the refusal to recognise and grant basic moral rights to animals simply involves a collapse into the ‘might is right’ outlook – it is fundamentally anti-ethical.
Which brings us back to the blog title. It calls for fair and consistent justice and rejects egoism and tyranny in all its forms, including human supremacism.