The outbreak of Ebola, as it rips through West African communities, has provided biologists with a unique impetus to come up with a cure.
Policy makers too, have a crucial role to play in setting boundaries for animal testing practices.
Tom Holder, a well-known pro-test activist, says that “nearly all of us benefit from medical treatments made possible through animal research, and with so much at stake, it’s important that scientists make the case for the importance of using animals in research.”
Animal testing is perhaps the most controversial area in medicinal research; Norman Baker, the former Liberal Democrat home office minister wanted to see an end to all experiments on animals in the UK.
But John O’Keefe and his colleagues from University College of London, who received this year’s Nobel Prize for Medicine and Physiology, don’t agree.
Before we get to dissecting animals in hope for a medicinal breakthrough, let’s pause for a moment and think about the one right that protects us from death – the right to life. In other words; no one can just kill you.
A condition of being part of a moral, civil society is to have rights and responsibilities. Since this relationship of rights and responsibilities is symbiotic in nature, we’re all in a way responsible for safeguarding each other’s rights.
As animals don’t participate in this market of rights and responsibilities, they’re largely denied a moral status. They’re not just excluded from our moral community, they’re used as instruments of research and experimentation.Being an animal rights activist is difficult as the scientific community has a tendency to ignore criticism.
The culture of secrecy that underpins privately funded animal research makes it extremely hard for the general public to have informed opinions on the issue, let alone take any action on the excesses of the pharmaceutical and consumer goods industry.
“Wherever there’s been a vacuum of understanding about research, they [activists] have filled it with disinformation based on rare instances of negligence and shocking examples of seemingly barbaric experiments, accompanied by stories describing animal research as unnecessary and out-dated,” says Holder, who now runs London-based research group called Speaking of Research.
With undercover investigations acting as one of the few windows into the animal research world, the matter becomes more contentious than it ought to be.
Much could be done to bridge this gap between activists and scientists.
Addressing the issue of inaccessibility, Bella Williams of Understanding Animal Research confirms that there’s a need for “greater transparency”.
There are two factors colluding to make it harder for the general public to take an interest in animal research.
Firstly, distressing images of animal cruelty are simply hard to watch. Secondly, scientists in the pharmaceutical industry work under strict confidentiality agreements and often only grant access to one member of the Ethical Review Committee.
Science laboratories need to be more transparent in the aims, procedures and outcomes of experiments they conduct. Experiments that yield no great results at the cost of immense suffering shouldn’t be repeated.
In order to achieve that, intellectual property laws need to be amended with an aim to harmonise the work of scientists and pharmaceutical companies using animals for research. International trade agreements too should be designed to safeguard the rights of animals as they’re traded from country to country, culture to culture.
Despite the increasingly haunting impact of the Ebola virus, it is never a bad time to take a step back, clear our minds off the animal testing hysteria and decide what price we’re actually willing to pay for our medicine.
Featured image courtesy of Understanding Animal Research via Flickr