The use of animals in scientific experiments is another area where resistance to their abuse is growing. It is being driven by students and academics alike, and while experiments using live animals have led to, and indeed, will continue to lead to, benefits for humans, the underlying assumption that these gains automatically outweigh animal suffering looks more and more objectionable every day. Do we really believe that all living creatures on this planet are here to serve us, for us to experiment on, regardless of what they might think about it or what they might suffer? If we find these god delusions are taking hold, we need only remind ourselves that our lofty position in the hierarchy of animals is the result of a quirk in our DNA, and nothing more. We didn’t actually do anything to be in the position we are. We are just ungainly, slow, weak, medium-sized mammals that got lucky and we hold no pre-ordained authority over other species and have no more ‘right’ to experiment on them than they have to experiment on us.
In fact, where we are seeking human benefit it would make more sense for us to carry out our experiments on human subjects, not only because the results would be immediately applicable, but because the researchers would be able to obtain fully-informed consent from the subjects, suitably reward them for their contribution, and insure them against injury or death. This would be a much better and fairer system but it’s not going to be put in place any time soon because of our obsession with the ‘sanctity of human life’ and our tacit support for the unsupportable notion that it is OK for us to torture animals for our benefit, but it is not OK to place one of our own kind in any form of serious discomfort. Not only is this the height of hypocrisy, it is grossly inefficient, because, as we know, mice are not men—or women for that matter, and there always must be human trials before drugs are released onto the market regardless of how many mice the drug companies have tortured along the way.
The time for ramping up non-animal research, as a matter of urgency, passed a long time ago. Despite some institutions patting themselves on their backs, nowhere near enough effort has been made to date, although it is encouraging to see the emergence of organisations such as The Medical Advances Without Animals (MAWA) Trust (established in Sydney in 2000), taking a leading role in advocating for non-animal experimentation.xliv An impressive number of senior scientists, researchers and academics from many disciplines belong to MAWA. Clearly, they believe that there is much more that can be done to help move us toward a time when science can advance without subjecting other species to a spectrum of intrusive, painful and degrading experiments.
Of course, it is one thing to oppose experiments involving animals, particularly those that cause pain and suffering, and quite another to refuse the benefits of medicines that may well have their origins in such pain and suffering. So what should we do? There doesn’t seem to be much point in dying of pneumonia or septicaemia when there is an antibiotic to knock it out. Furthermore, most of us would be unaware of the processes that went into the development of a drug a decade ago, and it is unlikely that we could find out anyway if confidentiality rules are invoked. But then, even if we did know, how many of us would willingly forgo the benefits of the medication even if we strongly disapproved of the methods used to obtain it? Very few, I think, and new anti-viral and antibiotic drugs are going to continue to flow out of laboratories where defenceless animals are mistreated in the name of science for well into the foreseeable future. The best thing I can suggest, despite the undeniable hypocrisy of it, is to continue taking whatever medication is available, while throwing our (financial and moral) support behind those who are intent on working towards a future free from experiments that cause animal suffering. This is, of course, a wishy-washy, self-interested response, tinged with cowardice and hypocrisy, because it almost certainly perpetuates animal abuse, but as it stands, if it comes to the crunch, we either have to live with our hypocrisy and take the tablet, or die of a treatable disease.
So how do we get things moving in the right direction? Clearly, we need more stringent regulations governing animal experiments. Proposals for experiments involving animals which are likely to cause them to suffer, must be subject to much more rigorous scrutiny by animal ethics committees than they are currently where far too much ‘rubber-stamping’ is going on. I know, I’ve been a member of an animal ethics committee attached to a university. Animal experiments should only be permitted to proceed if they are deemed necessary and any suffering must be below a defined threshold. The definitions of ‘necessary’ and the ‘threshold’ will be crucial because they will govern what is allowable and what is not. Arriving at them will be equally difficult because the old standards will have to be dramatically lifted and many borderline judgement calls made and then justified to an independent panel. And nothing will speed up the development of non-animal research faster than experimenters knowing that their research grant applications are far more likely to be successful when non-animal techniques are employed. Those, who now throw their hands up in the air and say we can’t get anywhere without experiments that cause animal suffering, will find that if sufficient effort and willingness to change, are coupled with technological advances, that that is not the case and much of what they are doing today will be unthinkable among their children’s generation of scientists.