Sharon Howe: animal testing is both cruel and unnecessary

Posted on the 6th March 2006

From The Independent (06/03/06):

The privilege of studying at Oxford is not something I have ever taken for granted. I was brought up on a council estate in Swindon and went to a pretty rough comprehensive. My parents struggled financially for most of their lives, but they put me and my education first and that is how – seemingly against all odds – I got into one of the country’s top universities. It was a moment of great pride – for both me and my family – when I entered the grand Sheldonian Theatre in gown and cap to receive my first-class honours degree.

It is therefore with great regret that I now find myself forced to return that degree to an institution of which I can no longer be proud. I simply cannot continue my association with a university which persists in building a new laboratory to perpetuate the morally repugnant and scientifically outdated practice of animal testing. How can painfully and artificially inducing human diseases in other species with a different genetic make-up to our own possibly advance the cause of modern medicine?

Of course animal testing has always gone on at Oxford – but here was the perfect opportunity to move forward and develop a centre of excellence for cutting-edge, non-animal research which would give us the competitive advantage Tony Blair is so keen to promote – and inspire other countries to follow our example.

Yes, animal testing may have brought some fortuitous human benefits in the past – to argue otherwise would be as disingenuous as Professor John Stein’s claim that “almost all of the medical advances of the last 100 years have happened through animal experiments” (conveniently ignoring the development of anaesthetics, the sanitation improvements which saw off infectious diseases such as TB and cholera long before vaccines were developed, the surgical techniques developed on the battlefield during the Second World War and the epidemiological studies which have identified the main – largely diet and lifestyle-related – causes of heart disease, cancer, strokes and Aids). But how do we know that the same benefits wouldn’t have been achieved – and sooner – without it?

I wonder how many of the people whom pro-vivisectionists seek to manipulate emotionally with their specious “dog-or-child” dilemma are aware that, while alternatives require scientific validation before being approved, the same rigorous criteria have never been applied to animal experimentation? In fact, the Home Office has even refused to conduct a cost-benefit analysis on vivisection. Surely a reasonable request?

And “reasonable” is what the vast majority of people who want to see an end to animal testing are. They are people like me with a sense of compassion who campaign peacefully by shaking tins for humane research charities, organising sponsored walks, collecting names on petitions and talking to people on the streets. But that’s not exciting enough for large sections of the media. Confrontation and violence make much better copy. Hence their relentless homing-in on a minority of extremists – which can be gratifyingly found on the fringes of any movement for social change, from women’s emancipation to civil rights.

No one could be keener to see a cure for Parkinson’s than I: my mother has been suffering from it for many years and it breaks my heart to see her steadily degenerate. But cutting open the skulls of monkeys – who do not even suffer from the disease – and injecting chemicals into their brains is at best a crude and highly circuitous path to achieving this. As for the ethical dimension, the distinction we seek to make between wild-caught and purpose-bred monkeys, or between pet cats and dogs and their laboratory counterparts, must be one of mankind’s most monumental feats of hypocrisy.

The technology to achieve change already exists. Organisations such as the Dr Hadwen Trust and the Humane Research Trust are funding vital research into all the major human diseases to replace painful procedures on animals. Cancer research projects use complex 3D human cell cultures and mathematical modelling to improve the targeting of radiation treatments, for example, while new generations of brain scanning techniques – some of them developed at Oxford – are providing far more relevant insights into neurological diseases like Parkinson’s than invasive operations on monkeys are ever likely to do.

OK, so the options were limited in Galen’s day – but we are now in the 21st century, with an arsenal of sophisticated techniques at our disposal from computer simulation to stem-cell research. The British pharmaceutical company Pharmagene, for one, tests drugs exclusively on human tissue, arguing that “If you have information on human genes, what’s the point of going back to animals?”

It is nonsense to suggest that abolishing vivisection would mean the end of medical progress: on the contrary, it would enable the funds lavished uncritically on projects such as the £18m Oxford laboratory to be diverted to directly relevant, human-based research, which is currently being held back by institutional inertia and vested interests.

And what better way for the university to maintain its reputation as a world-class seat of human progress and enlightenment than to be at the forefront of this endeavour?

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