Animal Rights and Medical Research

Some UK animal rights campaigners take the movement to have won a great victory. More rational proponents of animal rights may well think the victory is decidedly Pyrrhic.

The Darley Oaks Farm in Newchurch, Staffordshire, which has been breeding guinea pigs for medical research for more than 30 years, has decided to stop because of a campaign of intimidation by ‘activists’. The owners of the farm and employees have received death threats, and the body of a relative was stolen from a churchyard in October 2004 and has never been found. Suppliers of the farm were also subject to intimidation, as the BBC reported:

Rod Harvey supplied fuel to the farm and endured four years of abuse from activists before he was forced to cease trading with the Halls. The 63-year-old businessman said he received threatening letters, including one accusing him of being a paedophile which was then sent to a number of people he knew.

Scientists and the government expressed anger and frustration at this outcome. By coincidence, a declaration of support for animal testing for medical research was published the day after the news of the Darley Oaks Farm decision, on August 24, 2005. The declaration was signed by more than 500 UK scientists and doctors, including three Nobel laureates (Sir Paul Nurse, Dr Tim Hunt and Sir John Sulston), 190 Fellows of the Royal Society and the Medical Royal Colleges, and more than 250 professors. The Department of Trade and Industry condemned the campaign of intimidation:

It is wholly unacceptable that a small minority of animal extremists should mount a campaign of fear and intimidation in an attempt to stop individuals and companies going about their lawful and legitimate business.

the Guardian reported that the closure of Darley Oaks Farm caused worries about the possibility of medical research in the UK:

‘They will make Britain a place where we cannot do clinically relevant research,’ warned Roger Morris, a leading CJD researcher at King’s College London. ‘When we talk to colleagues in Europe and America, Britain is seen as a place where you cannot do animal research.’

And Simon Festing from the Research Defence Society pointed out that guinea pig research had led to 23 Nobel prizes in medicine.

It is appalling that a small bunch of criminal extremists can close down a legitimate business supplying animals to medical research.

The Guardian quotes Colin Blakemore, the chief executive of the Medical Research Council, on the issue:

I was involved in the original declaration 15 years ago. It is as important now as it was then to show that scientists and doctors are fully aware of the importance of animal research to science and medicine. Of course animals must be cared for properly and never used unless absolutely necessary. This is how we do research and it would be illegal to do it any other way.

Blakemore discussed the issues in some detail in an interview with Jeremy Stangroom in What Scientists Think.

[T]he Royal Society has recently published a pretty comprehensive study which says that virtually every medical advance in the last century has depended on the use of animals in research at some point; or with the statement from the Department of Health, in its evidence to the House of Lords committee on animal experimentation, that the National Health Service could not operate without the foundation of the knowledge which animal research has built. The overwhelming view of the scientific establishment, and I’m not using that expression in a pejorative way, is that animal research is necessary for progress in medical science…Ninety-nine percent of physicians in the United States say that it is essential to use animals in medical research; and more than ninety-five percent of British physicians say the same thing. So whilst it is important to listen to maverick opinion, it is clear we shouldn’t put too much weight on it when one considers that the American Medical Association, the Royal Society, the British Medical Association, and the General Medical Council all state that animal experimentation is necessary.

It would be nice if all medical research could be done with computer modelling, but unfortunately that is not the case. It would also be nice if leopards and eagles and pythons all ate lentils instead of sentient animals, but that is not the case either.

Recommended Reading

Jeremy Stangroom, What Scientists Think

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