Brussels, 30 May 2005
In a major review of the ethics of research involving animals, the UK's Nuffield Council on Bioethics has concluded that constructive debate on the issue would be made easier with the availability of clear information on the implications of animal testing, in terms of the numbers of animals used and level of suffering caused, as well as scientific and other benefits.
The council established a working group in 2003 to examine the issue in detail, and their findings were published in a 350-page report on 25 May. While it was not always possible to reach a consensus on many of the issues raised, the experts in the working group say that they were able to avoid 'the polarisation of views which has so often stifled proper debate.'
The ethical debate on research involving animals must be seen in the wider context of the use of animals in food, clothing, farming and other occupations, argues the report, but adds that the involvement of animals in research cannot be justified simply by the fact that animals are abused in other ways. Indeed, it goes on to state that 'A world in which the important benefits of [research using animals] could be achieved without causing pain, suffering, distress, lasting harm or death to animals involved in research, must be the ultimate goal.'
In many cases, the various and sometimes conflicting opinions on animal testing that exist arise as a result of differing moral convictions, all of which should be given serious consideration, according to the report. However, members of the working group agree that in the near future, further moral argument alone will not provide a universal answer to whether animal experimentation is justified.
Given this reality, the report stresses the importance of the Three Rs (refinement, reduction and replacement) and argues that they should continue to be enshrined in UK regulation. Furthermore, the working group agrees that it is insufficient to consider only those alternatives that are available at the time of assessment. 'The question of why alternatives are not available and what is required to make them available must also be asked. The potential of the Three Rs is far from being exhausted.'
On the subject of regulation, while the report welcomes the comprehensive framework in place in the UK, it warns that full accountability cannot be guaranteed through the existence of regulations alone. In fact, regulations can act as an 'emotional screen' between the researcher and an animal, encouraging the false belief that to conform to regulations is to act in a morally responsible way. 'It is therefore crucial to promote best practice more actively and to improve the culture of care in establishments licensed to conduct experiments on animals,' states the report.
In terms of the scientific validity of animal testing, the working party concludes that due to evolutionary continuities and similarities between animals and humans, there are sufficient grounds to conclude that animals can be useful models to study biological processes in humans in specific cases. However, its members also refute two common generalisations, namely that all such research is directly applicable to humans, or that no animal research has ever produced results that are useful and relevant to humans.
Perhaps reflecting the various moral positions on animal testing held by individual members of the working group, many of the report's final recommendations focus on measures that will improve the quality of the future moral debate. They call for improved government statistics on the use of animals in specific research projects, including meaningful information on: the goals and predicted benefits of such research; the probability of achieving these goals; the numbers and species of animals to be used; what is likely to happen to the animals; what consideration has been given to the Three Rs; on what grounds potential alternatives have been rejected; and sources of funding.
The report calls on those actively involved in animal experimentation to be more proactive about explaining their research to society, while also attempting to better understand the views and concerns expressed by members of the public. It also advocates increased information sharing between researchers and countries to try and reduce the number of experiments on animals that are needlessly duplicated.
Finally, the working group also emphasises that in all cases, the use of approaches based on violence and intimidation to oppose the use of animals in research is morally wrong, and calls for the debate to be conducted in a reasonable and civilised manner. The report stresses that while a number of working group members who are opposed to animal experimentation endorsed the recommendations, many of which aim to improve the conditions in which animals are used, this should in no way imply their acquiescence to the use of animals in research.
The chair of the working party, Baroness Perry of Southwark, concluded: 'It is not helpful to simply categorise people's views as 'for' or 'against' animal research. There is a continuum of views between these two ends of the spectrum. The report does not state which viewpoint is the 'right' one, but invites the reader to judge for themselves. We have tried to analyse the ethical bases on which different opinions are held.'
For further information, please consult the following web address:
http:///www.nuffieldbioeth ics.org/go/ourw ork/animalresearch/publication_178.html