Why I...fear for the treatment of laboratory animals

March 18, 2005

Last November, an inquest decided that a young serviceman had been unlawfully killed by the British Government. He was, reportedly, one of more than 700 soldiers used as "guinea pigs" at the Ministry of Defence's research establishment at Porton Down in the Fifties. Some newspapers covered the story, but it provoked no questions about the limits of experimentation.

Well, here's one question that could have been asked: if government scientists can murder an innocent soldier in the name of "research" without any legal repercussions for 50 years, what grounds have we for supposing that "mere animals" will be spared hideous suffering?

True, the soldiers concerned were subject to military discipline and misled about the likely severity of the experiments. But at least humans can speak up and defend themselves. The same can't be said for the millions of laboratory animals. The reply would, no doubt, be: "ethics committees", "inspectors", "strict regulation". But none of these things saved the human guinea pigs at Porton Down.

Ethics committees are characterised not by addressing ethical issues but by managing them. Documents report one Home Office official describing the Government's own Animal Procedures Committee as a "rubber-stamping exercise".

We are assured that lab animals are treated with the greatest care, but why, then, do undercover videos invariably record scenes of horrific abuse?

Those who justify experiments appeal to the greater good. But even if we hold the utilitarian view that a small number of experiments could be justified, it still doesn't follow that we can justify the setting-up of animal experimentation as an institution.

The point was made by the philosopher Anthony Flew about torture. Even though he acknowledged that torture might sometimes be justifiable, he decisively rejected it as an "institutional legal or social practice".

"Institutionalisation" may be defined as the way in which established practices become routine and self-perpetuating.

Now animal experimentation has become a multimillion-dollar industry, fuelled by the biotech companies that work hand in glove with university departments only too eager for research money. So seductive has this commercial pressure become that the Government is legislating to curb public displays of dissent.

The Serious Organised Crime and Police Bill, currently before Parliament, would make it a criminal offence to hand out a leaflet asking someone not to buy the products of a certain company because it tests on animals. Of course, intimidation and threats of violence must be condemned. But utilitarians can't have it both ways. If it is wrong to intimidate scientists so that they might desist from inflicting harm on animals, then it must be equally wrong to inflict harm on innocent animals in order to procure benefit to humans.

In 1947, C. S. Lewis wrote: "It is the rarest thing in the world to hear a rational discussion of vivisection." The reason was that "the other side has, in fact, won". The victory of vivisection, he held, "marks a great advance in the triumph of ruthless, non-moral utilitarianism over the old world of ethical law; a triumph in which we, as well as animals, are already the victims, and of which Dachau and Hiroshima mark the more recent achievements".

Nearly 60 years later, simply distributing C. S. Lewis's paper outside an animal lab could be a criminal offence. Those who seek to curtail freedom of speech invariably have something to hide.

Andrew Linzey Senior research fellow, Blackfriars Hall, Oxford

Andrew Linzey is co-editor of Animal Rights: A Historical Anthology , Columbia University Press, $24.50 (£12.80).

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