The response to Stena Line’s departure from the life science transport industry has been largely one-sided: I hope to give a fuller picture.
This week, Radio 4’s Today programme revealed that the ferry company, Stena Line, has left the life sciences transport industry due to targeted pressure from animal rights activists. With the likes of P&O having already withdrawn, Stena is the final major ferry company to have been beaten by the anti-vivisection pleas.
The news was met with furore amongst medical professionals; although only 1% of Britain’s research animals come from overseas, many claim that the sharing of specific models is vital to efficient experimentation. Former Labour minister, Lord Drayson, condemned the protesters for effectively ‘choking off vital research into debilitating diseases,’ whilst Science Minister, David Willetts, expressed a hope that the government could create a code of practice for animal transportation which would allow the resumption of trade. This, he argued, ‘makes sense for everyone.’
For everyone? Really? I presume, then, that we aren’t including the animals in this assertion?
However, the obstinate silence of the animal rights activists provides us with no alternative viewpoint: we are instead left to absorb the arguments of their comparably vocal opposition. Yes, the pain caused to animals in research is regrettable, but surely it is worth it if it gives us the cure for cancer, or diabetes, or Alzheimer’s?
That’s exactly the point though: if. Supporters of vivisection are largely so on consequentialist grounds. But isn’t it the case that there must be substantial proof of consequences before one asserts that they will be beneficial? We cannot say, for certain, that when we experiment upon an animal the result will be positive for humankind, nor, more to the point, can we say that it will not be negative; in recent years, drugs such as Vioxx, E-Ferol, Oraflex and Selacryn have all been removed from our shelves because of their adverse effects on humans. All were tested on animals. Therefore, the most we can know, for certain, is that an indefinite number of animals will suffer and die in research in the hope of positive consequences for humans.
… a great deal of animal experimentation has been misleading and resulted in either withholding of drugs, sometimes for years, that were subsequently found to be highly beneficial to humans, or the release of drugs that, though harmless to animals, have actually contributed to human suffering and death.
Jane Goodall, ‘Reason for Hope‘, 1999
But are there really any plausible alternatives? Many argue that the only ethical means of testing drugs is on animals so we must make do, regardless of genetic discrepancies. In the early stages, human trials are simply far too dangerous and could lead to the exploitation of the poor.
Others claim that proper regulations would eliminate any such issues. There is also a push for epidemiological studies,computer models and cell cultures to take the place of animals. It is proven that these would produce more reliable and less painful results; activists allege that the only reason these methods haven’t been adopted is due to experimenters’ archaic preferences.
Underlying most arguments in favour of animal testing is the assumption that we, as humans, are of greater moral value than all other beings; we are superior. We assert this on the basis of:
It is generally accepted that humans are, at the very least, academically superior to other animals.
But the question is whether intelligence and moral value are synonymous. Surely intelligence gives us a responsibility to care for, rather than exploit, those that are vulnerable, just as a fully intelligent parent cares for a baby? We may contest that this is different because a baby has the potential for high-level human intelligence. Yet potentiality has very little relevance in most areas of life- for example, all humans have the inherent potential to be dead, but we don’t treat them like corpses- so why should we consider it in this particular case?
Moreover, not all humans are of elevated intelligence- many are mentally incapacitated to the extent that they are at, or below, the level of animal consciousness.
…whenever experimenters claim that their experiments are important enough to justify the use of animals, we should ask them whether they would be prepared to use a brain-damaged human being at a similar mental level to the animals they are planning to use.
Peter Singer, ‘Animal Liberation‘, 1991
As Singer illustrates, we would generally be quite happy to vivisect an animal, but would be absolutely appalled at the idea of experimenting on a human of the same intelligence.
Many religions uphold humans as superior to animals- the general belief is that they are closer to God.
Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, after our likeness, so they may rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move on the earth.”
Again, there is debate over whether this means that we can do whatever we like with animals or whether this gives us a duty of stewardship which demands that we prioritise their care. After all, for theists, animals are just as much a part of God’s creation as humans.
Regardless of the arguments for animal liberation, David Willetts’ point that ‘The UK benefits from one of the most stringent regulatory environments regarding the use of animals in scientific research’ could be problematic for activists. Yes, perhaps we can prevent life science imports, but what then? Do the breeding companies reduce the number of animals they produce? Or do they simply get sent elsewhere? I cannot claim to have the answer to this, but with regards to the latter, surely if UK animal testing guidelines are amongst the most rigorous in the world, it would be better to continue to import animals than to allow them to suffer the potentially awful alternative?
It seems, then, that if there is to be truly successful alleviation of animal suffering, the matter must be tackled multilaterally. A hefty task. And possibly an unrealistic one (decades after reaching a consensus that nuclear weapons are actually quite horrible, we are still fervently fondling our detonators.)
Personally, I don’t believe that this can be achieved through the current activist technique- their taciturn response to this week’s outcry has painted them as the antagonists. Mild militancy is all very well but it only works if you have a substantial number of people on your side. I’m worried that the activists’ controversial movements could damage their cause; perhaps it would be more beneficial to concentrate on gaining support through raising awareness and giving alternatives. A prime example of this in action is the 1965 television programme, ‘Up the Junction’, which brought the dangers of backstreet abortion into the mainstream, leading to the 1967 Abortion Act. In my opinion, the activists are sprinting before they can walk in an area which, with enough people involved, may require no more than a gentle jog- ‘Up the Junction’ changed public values so significantly that militancy was hardly needed.
And, as for that ingenious idiom, you can count me in.
Worth a read: Abbie Copley's take on the Grand National: 'Only two died' they say.