Ethics of vivisection moving into focus

September 22, 1995

The Boyd group has been meeting secretly for two years to find a balance between opposing sides of the debate over vivisection.

Earlier this year a group of scientists, academics, animal welfarists and members of research-funding bodies published a discussion document proposing the establishment of institutional ethics committees to oversee animal experimentation in United Kingdom research institutions. Chaired by Kenneth Boyd of the Institute of Medical Ethics, this group had apparently been meeting in secret for almost two years, with the knowledge and tacit support of the Home Office.

When the "Boyd" group's proposals were announced, they were presented as a significant breakthrough, for the first time establishing common ground between opposing sides in the debate over vivisection. In reality these proposals offer little hope for laboratory animals and have attracted virtually no support from the mainstream animal rights movement. Rather, they appear mainly concerned with legitimising the continued use of animals in research and diverting public attention from this issue. Under these plans, membership of such committees would be dominated by those directly involved in animal research, with limited lay participation and only token representation of animal welfare interests. Those opposed to animal experimentation would be excluded from membership and lay members would be subject to constraints on confidentiality.

Indeed, the whole basis of the Boyd group's proposals appears to be that such committees should be established, not as independent bodies, but in order to "protect" institutions from legitimate animal rights criticism. The group's discussion document actually argues "the very existence of ethics committees . . . would engender public confidence in decisions about the ethical acceptability of scientific work on animals".

Perhaps even more telling, the Boyd group has failed to provide any evidence whatsoever that the establishment of such ethics committees would actually lead to either a reduction in the numbers of animal experiments or, indeed, real improvements in the welfare of laboratory animals.

Proponents of ethical committees argue that they would provide a means of improving openness and accountability in the regulation of animal research.

They contrast the scepticism engendered by the lack of openness in the UK unfavourably with the situation of those countries which operate mandatory local ethical committees, such Sweden and the Netherlands.

This simplistic analysis ignores significant differences between the political and administrative cultures of those countries and that of the UK. Such differences are apparent, for example, in relation to issues such as freedom of information, the extent of public consultation and parliamentary oversight of decision making.

Attempting to graft mandatory institutional ethics committees on to the UK's existing closed, centralised system for regulating animal experimentation simply will not work. It will increase bureaucracy, duplicate existing statutory responsibilities and muddy lines of accountability.

In the UK it is the Home Office that holds ultimate responsibility for ethical judgements regarding the use of animals in scientific research. Section 5.4. of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986 requires that, in deciding whether to license a particular project, the Secretary of State must ". . . weigh the likely adverse effects on the animals concerned against the benefit likely to accrue . . ."

In making this judgement the Secretary of State is advised both by the department's own civil servants and by the Animal Procedures Committee - the UK's existing national ethical committee for animal research. Unfortunately this committee, like the local institutional committees proposed by the Boyd group, is dominated by those with a direct interest in such research.

The Boyd group's proposals fail to address, in any way, how the Home Office itself should be held accountable for the ethical decisions with which it is charged. This failure is perhaps particularly surprising given the draconian secrecy which surrounds the operation of the 1986 Act. The Home Office has never published any proper account of the manner in which it undertakes the weighing up of animal suffering against potential benefit required by the Act. No details of project licences are ever made public. Unauthorised disclosure of such information is a criminal offence, punishable by up to two years imprisonment.

What is clear, however, is that the Home Office consistently attaches very little weight to the lives of laboratory animals. Since the 1986 Act the rate of decline in the numbers of animals used in UK laboratories has actually decreased. Indeed, for some classes of research, for example genetic engineering and ecotoxicology, the numbers of animals being used has dramatically increased. Furthermore, there is considerable evidence to suggest that the Home Office routinely accepts the most tenuous of potential benefits, such as pure commercial profit or academic curiosity, as sufficient justification for approving animal use.

For the concept of accountability to have any meaning within a parliamentary democracy, such as our own, it is first and foremost the government and its civil servants who must be held accountable to parliament and ultimately to the public at large. This is only possible with proper public disclosure of the relevant information on which decisions are made. Any commitment to openness and accountability in the regulation of animal experimentation should therefore begin with the disclosure of all project licence applications, allowing public comment before any decisions.

Such a system would not only provide for proper public input to the ethical evaluation of proposed research projects but would also, in many cases, allow for humane "alternative" approaches to be proposed. Section 5.5. of the existing Act requires that a project licence may only be granted where the Secretary of State is satisfied that adequate consideration has been given to achieving the objectives of the research without using animals.

The Home Office should then publish its reasons for accepting or rejecting any such applications, clearly stating the (ethical) basis upon which its decision was made. Only through such a system will the operation of the Act be open to genuine public scrutiny.

Some may protest that such disclosure would invite attacks from violent extremists. There could be no reasonable objection, however, to the release of such information in a form that did not compromise the confidentiality of individuals or name the laboratories involved.

If the research community and animal welfare establishment are really committed to "improving public confidence" in the regulation of animal experimentation, they could call on the UK government to meet the European Union's Fifth Environmental Action Programme's target of a 50 per cent reduction in animal testing by the year 2000. This is a policy our government signed, but which it has done nothing to implement. The Boyd group could start by calling for immediate bans on the use of animals in areas such as cosmetic, warfare, alcohol, tobacco, LD50 and Draize eye irritancy tests - moves for which there would be overwhelming public support. Then perhaps we would really have a breakthrough in establishing some common ground over the future of animal research.

Malcolm Eames is head of information and research for the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection.

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