Let the people speak

What would it take for you to agree that a mouse or monkey should suffer pain, or even die? To develop a drug to cure leukemia? To understand why some people are hard of hearing? Or are there no scientific gains that can justify the animal's suffering?

These questions ought to be pivotal in any debate over the ethics of animal experimentation. The trouble is, the public's views aren't usually taken into account. To committed supporters of animal rights, such experiments can never be justified--even if a majority thinks otherwise. Meanwhile, the scientists involved defend the status quo because they assume that people want to see progress in medicine. "Much basic research on physiological, pathological and therapeutic processes still requires animal experimentation. Such research has provided and continues to provide the essential foundation for improvements in medical and veterinary knowledge, education and practice," said the British Association for the Advancement of Science in a 1992 statement.

In a democracy, people's views do count, of course. And we suspected that a desire for better drugs and vaccines might not necessarily translate into blanket approval for all the experiments that are sanctioned at the moment. So to work out exactly where the British public draw the line, we commissioned MORI to poll people aged 15 and over.

First, we asked half of the sample whether, on balance, they agreed or disagreed that scientists should be allowed to experiment on animals. The rest were asked the same question, but were first told: "Some scientists are developing and testing new drugs to reduce pain, or developing new treatments for life-threatening diseases such as leukemia and AIDS. By conducting experiments on live animals, scientists believe they can make more rapid progress than would otherwise have been possible."

The "cold start" question revealed that basic attitudes to animal experimentation are distinctly hostile. Just 24 per cent of people were in favor, with 64 per cent against (see Figure).

We drew up a list of activities, and asked people to say which ones they had taken part in within the past two years or so. From their answers we could tell which "lifestyle factors" correlate most strongly with disapproval of research involving animals. Not surprisingly, the strongest views were held by people who had signed petitions on animal welfare (86 per cent disapproval), vegetarians (85 per cent) and members of animal welfare organizations (83 per cent). People who had bought "cruelty free" cosmetics, not tested on animals, also stood out: 77 per cent of them disapproved of animal experiments. More women were opposed than men: 71 per cent disapproval versus 57 per cent.

Identifying groups who support animal experimentation on the cold start question was difficult. People who said they or a close family member had taken a drug for a serious illness--and who knew this drug had been tested on animals--were more tolerant of animal experiments than most, but 52 per cent of them still disapproved. The only group who clearly backed animal research, with 62 per cent in favor, were those who had worn a fur coat or taken part in a blood sport. These people, who made up just 2 per cent of our sample, are presumably used to swimming against the tide of public opinion on animal welfare issues.

Including the preamble justifying the use of animals in medical research completely altered the picture, however. On this "warm start" question, people backed animal experimentation by a slim majority, with 45 per cent for versus 41 per cent against. This represents a swing of 22 per cent from disapproval to approval--a huge swing for a poll of this type. "The implication is that the public's mind is not made up on these issues," says Robert Worcester, chairman of MORI. "Most people are willing to be persuaded, although initially skeptical of the value of animal experimentation." The swing for women was 23 per cent; for men it was 21 per cent.

Most of our lifestyle groups were swayed by a similar amount. The largest and smallest swings were for two of the groups who were most strongly opposed to animal experiments on the cold start question. Members of animal welfare organizations held firm, with the justifying preamble producing a swing of just 14 per cent. But people who had bought cruelty-free cosmetics showed a swing of 30 per cent, and on the warm start question were almost equally divided in their responses.

The narrow majority in favor of animal research for our warm start question is slightly different from the results of other polls that have investigated public attitudes to the use of animals in medical experiments, which have tended to find a small majority against. In 1990, a Harris poll for The Observer asked: "Are you in favor of animal tests for medical drugs?" Forty-six per cent answered yes; 48 per cent said no. A similar question in a 1995 Gallup poll for The Daily Telegraph found 40 per cent in favor and 50 per cent against.

But previous polls have not tried to delve beneath these superficial attitudes to find out whether people approve of specific experiments. We selected a range of goals for animal experiments, and asked people whether they approved or disapproved: a) if animals do not suffer b) if animals are subjected to pain, illness or surgery c) if animals may die. Again, the sample was split. One half was told the experiments would be on mice, the other was told monkeys would be involved.

The Tables ("People carefully weigh the costs and benefits of individual experiments..." and "The species involved makes a difference...") show the results, which reveal that people seem to carry out a sophisticated cost-benefit analysis before deciding whether an animal experiment can be justified. The experiment's goal and whether animals will suffer in any way are the most important factors. However, people don't find experiments in which animals might die any more objectionable than those involving pain, illness or surgery.

Mice are by far the most commonly used animals in British laboratories. They were used in 152 million of the 264 million licensed procedures conducted in 1997. The results show that a majority of people are prepared to accept that mice may suffer, if this helps to fight life-threatening diseases. There were clear majorities in favor of experiments to develop an AIDS vaccine or a drug for treating childhood leukemia. People were just as happy to support the final stages of testing to check whether drugs and vaccines are safe and effective as they were to back experiments involved earlier in their development.

But these positive views did not extend to all forms of medical research. Opinion was evenly divided over experiments to develop and test a painkilling drug if the experiment involved mice suffering pain - which is unavoidable in tests of a painkiller.

The results for the experiments investigating the sense of hearing are striking. These are exactly the sort of basic biomedical experiments that the British Association's statement on animal research was designed to defend. A large majority supported the use of mice in such experiments if they would come to no harm, but the hearing experiments showed the biggest swing towards disapproval as soon as pain, surgery or illness became involved (see Figure). If animal suffering can't be ruled out, it may be hard to convince the public of the worth of continuing the fundamental biological research on which many scientists believe medical advances depend. In 1997, this category accounted for more than 800 000 licensed procedures with animals in Britain. But it is possible that many were relatively benign, and so might win public support if they were described in detail.

Most people opposed testing cosmetics ingredients on mice, even if the mice came to no harm. These tests are already banned in Britain, but other forms of toxicity testing continue. And responses to our garden insecticide example suggest these tests do not command public support if any animal suffering is involved (see "Toxic shocker").

Experiments on monkeys were viewed much more negatively than those involving mice. Indeed, only experiments to test or develop drugs to treat childhood leukemia were seen as justifying monkeys suffering. In Britain, experiments involving primates are very tightly controlled. Researchers must convince government officials that the knowledge to be gained justifies any suffering to the animals, and that adequate data cannot be obtained by using other species.

In practice, this means that monkeys are unlikely to be used in leukemia research, as the disease can be studied in other animals. But attempts to develop AIDS vaccines depend heavily on experiments with related viruses in monkeys, in which some of the animals are likely to become ill. Our poll indicates that a majority of British people would oppose these experiments.

In the US, where regulations are less stringent, the goal of developing an AIDS vaccine is seen as sufficient justification for injecting chimpanzees, our nearest relatives, with potentially lethal strains of HIV ("Dying so we might live", 20 February). And while most people are probably not aware of such facts, 64 per cent of those we polled judged correctly that regulations governing animal experiments in Britain are as strict, or stricter, than those in other developed countries. Just 11 per cent thought that British rules are less strict, while 24 per cent said they didn't know.

In one respect, however, our poll reveals a disturbing gap in people's knowledge, which the British government might want to address. No prescription drug is marketed without first being tested in animals, yet people are either unaware that this is the case, or don't want to acknowledge the fact. While 35 per cent of the people we polled said they or a close family member had been prescribed a drug for a serious illness in the past two years or so, only 18 per cent of these people - 6 per cent of the total sample - knew it had been tested on animals. Significantly, this small group was more favorably disposed to animal experimentation than the larger number who said they weren't aware their drugs had been tested on animals. Indeed, with 66 per cent of them backing animal research in our "warm start" question, they were more positive about animal experiments than everyone we polled except the hunters and fur coat wearers.

While people may not be in full possession of the facts about animal research, many experiments that are licensed in Britain--including hundreds of thousands of toxicity tests and fundamental biological studies--could be banned if regulators were to follow the majority views expressed in our poll.

As the answers to the two versions of our first question have revealed, however, public opinion on animal research is not set in stone. Argument for or against particular types of experiment might swing public opinion. Our results highlight those types of experiment on which antivivisectionists might expect an abolitionist argument to receive a sympathetic hearing. Those who believe that such research should continue will need to detail the steps taken to minimize suffering, and produce compelling arguments to explain why the knowledge they expect to gain justifies using animals.

People can clearly weigh the pros and cons of animal experimentation. It's time for those who want to pursue a peaceful debate to seize the initiative.

By Peter Aldhous, Andy Coghlan, Jon Copley

From New Scientist, 22 May 1999