In discussing this issue I will focus on three areas. First I will examine the arguments for and against animal testing then consider whether ALL types of animal testing should be banned. Finally, I will consider the possible impact on scientific investigation of such a ban.
Is vivisection essential to medical progress?
Many scientists argue that animal testing is the best way to carry out research and has led to significant developments in drug treatments, vaccines and product safety. They claim that animals make good research subjects and that no computer simulation could ever adequately replicate the responses of a living organism. The relatively short life cycles of animals also makes them valuable for studying the responses of different generations. They point out that many animals are susceptible to the diseases that humans suffer from and experience similar physiological and emotional responses. However, this argument is also used by opponents of animal testing who claim that similarity to humans in terms of the experience of pain and stress is a reason why animal testing is unethical. It is true that animal testing has led to medical progress but anti-vivisectionists claim that some animal experiments have been misleading and actually delayed medical progress. For instance, they state that blood transfusions and corneal transplants were delayed by many years. Thalidomide's manufacturers were acquitted on the basis of expert evidence which deemed animal tests unreliable.
Anti-vivisectionists claim that it is dangerous to try to predict responses in humans through tests on a different species. In addition they believe it is morally wrong to subject an animal to tests that would be considered unethical on humans because animals deserve the same dignity and respect as humans.
Few people can disagree that many experiments can cause suffering to animals. The question is whether the end justifies the means. Fortunately, legislation in Europe has taken steps to safeguard the welfare of the animals. In the UK a licence will only be given for animal testing if the researcher has first considered alternative investigations. If animal testing has to be carried out, suffering must be kept to an absolute minimum. The central question is whether the outcome of such an experiment in terms of benefits to society will justify the cost of using animals.
Should all animal testing be banned?
Although some people believe that all animal testing should be banned, many people become more upset about the idea of cats, dogs and rabbits being used than mice and rats. It is easy to feel more compassion for animals that appear to us higher on the evolutionary scale but if you think in terms of a hierarchy in the animal kingdom, you shoot yourself in the foot and contradict the ‘all life is equal’ argument. So surely on moral grounds a ban should apply to all animals, whether they are invertebrates, vertebrates, rats or nonhuman primates.
Most people take the view that animal testing should be banned unless it is absolutely necessary. Many support a ban on animal testing for cosmetic purposes but believe it to be necessary for medical research. Cosmetic testing on animals is now banned in the UK but animals continue to be used in medical research. This includes testing products not only to prevent harm to humans but to the environment and animals, so it is not true to say that animal testing is only carried out for the benefit of human beings. Those of us with pets need to know that their medications are safe.
What are the alternatives to animal testing? These include computer models to study the mechanism and effects of drugs, virtual dissection kits and models of human systems. Cell tissue and organ culture enable human cells and tissue to be grown in vitro to study diseases. Human volunteer studies and case studies are valuable too.
The impact of a ban on animal testing
It would be naïve to assume that these alternative methods are sufficiently developed at present to replace animal testing completely. Some would argue that they never will be. I feel that to ban all animal testing immediately would be disastrous for many sick people and would halt much medical progress. However, I do feel that the replacement of animal testing with more humane methods should be seen as a long term goal. In the meantime, organisations such as the Fund for the Replacement of Animals in Medical Experiments (FRAME) are campaigning to minimize suffering to animals, reduce the number of animals used in studies and ultimately replace the use of living animals altogether. I strongly support the use of epidemiological studies. Studies of people as opposed to animal-testing are what led to an understanding of the links between smoking and cancer, coronary heart disease and diet, etc. Sometimes prevention is better than cure and education plays a huge part in that.
I believe that observing people in their natural environment provides more valid results than any laboratory experiment. Many variables in society contribute to human health issues and these cannot easily be replicated by animal testing in a controlled, artificial, laboratory setting.
Like so many things, the question of animal testing comes down to cost. To develop alternative research methods takes time, money and resources. To allow people to die in the meantime is just as unethical as animal testing. However, I believe it is crucial to raise awareness of alternative research methods, particularly with the younger generation so they don't grow up with entrenched ways of how to conduct research. The National Anti-Vivisection Society awards grants through its Lord Dowding Fund to those wishing to fund non-animal research.
It is my hope that as alternative methods are developed and improved, animal testing will gradually be phased out. There are highly emotional arguments on both sides, whether you sympathise with animals or retort – “If YOUR child was suffering, you wouldn't care about the animals' plight.” These reactions are totally understandable but not always helpful in making a reasoned decision. The way forward is to be realistic, keep the debate alive and to be open to and supportive of new ideas.