Colin Barker: Pro-Test, anti-complexity

June 23, 2006


Channel 4

Sixteen-year-old Laurie Pycroft initiated Pro-Test, a movement to defend Oxford University's new animal laboratories against animal-rights campaigners. I find the arguments deployed against him unconvincing. But the Channel 4 documentary about the teenager, which was broadcast last week, left me dissatisfied and uneasy. The difficulty is this. Movements matter. By mobilising people around moral and political issues, they help shape the world. But the ways movements set the issues up are not necessarily conducive to measured, rational debate.

In this case, one side says animals have rights, so stop torturing them. The other side says support science because it is dedicated to human progress. That leaves little room for nuance and doubt.

Mr Pycroft and his backers, some of whom are very eminent, argue that medical advances still require animal testing. So should we all join Pro-Test? The philosophical basis of animal rights seems weak. To accord rights to the cockroach, mosquito or housefly and to put those on a par with the rights we demand for humans sounds plain daft. If we feel differently about noble tigers, cuddly rabbits and gentle beagles, it is not really their rights that move us. We have aesthetic feelings about them; we can have relationships with them.

Not all experiments on animals cause pain and stress, but many do. Some, such as tests on anaesthetics, result in death. Descriptions of these experiments touch our squeamish side. If we accept the medical-scientific argument, we must also accept that we make some dumb animals suffer for human purposes, often in ways we find unpleasant.

To date, the medical-scientific justification seems to hold. Experiments on animals - to test drugs and surgical procedures and advance knowledge about physiology and the like - can benefit humankind.

Other test procedures, though, are losing ground. Soon, cosmetics companies across the European Union will be banned from testing their products on animals, but who knows what they will continue to do in countries where regulations are less tight? While it's still legal, I gather, to test the safety of household cleaning products on animals, I wonder for how much longer.

Some 2.5 million animal experiments are licensed in Britain each year. The defenders of animal experimentation, while arguing for their necessity, point out that the number has fallen as other techniques have become available. This claim concedes something to their opponents. It is an admission that there is something nasty about experimenting on animals.

That judgment is aesthetic as much as moral, and no less valuable for that.

It is a judgment about ugliness, not least about what doing ugly things might do to those who perform them.

That inherent nastiness leads governments to regulate animal experiments.

At least in theory, the purpose and method of every experiment must be justified. Indeed, the very fact of regulation is a backhanded tribute to the animal defenders.

But regulation itself generates another unease. Most animal testing is funded by big corporations, from pharmaceuticals to tobacco, none famous for its ethics. Their prosperity is vital to the governments that regulate them, mostly in private. Most regulators have ties to the industries they regulate.

We cannot judge animal testing without worrying about the moral and political economy that shapes the nexus between states and capitalist boardrooms.

So, nasty, dodgy - and necessary. Which movement expresses that?

Colin Barker is honorary lecturer in sociology at Manchester Metropolitan University.

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