Practical Issues > Things to do > Religion and Animals
A Christian view on animal testing


OCTOBER 2, 2004
St. Margaret's, Westminster
Arundel RC Cathedral

Sermon of The Rt Revd John Austin Baker, former Bishop of Salisbury,
President of the Association of Christian Animal Welfare Societies

'Their health and ours'

The other day a Times columnist, Anatole Kaletsky, sparked into fury by the violence of so-called animal liberationists, wrote a piece arguing that medical research was the only morally defensible reason for causing suffering to animals. Hunting, he said, inflicts stress and pain simply in the pursuit of human pleasure. The cruel rearing and slaughtering of beasts and poultry for food is also for nothing but pleasure, because meat is not essential to our health, and is a wasteful use of the Earth's resources. Trapping for fur serves mere luxury because fur is no longer needed for survival even in the coldest climates. But medical experiments with animals, he concluded, bring benefits to both human and animal health which cannot be obtained it any other way.

An awful lot of people, I suspect, share this view. If doctors, they say, devise a possible cure for some hitherto incurable condition, it obviously has to be tested before it is used, and giving it to animals is the best way of doing this. To deny millions of humans a longer more pain-free life for the sake of animals would be morally perverse. How do we respond?

The first point to get across is that the problem is not simply that of testing new medications. In the year 2002, 2,655,000 animals were used in tests or experiments (call them what you will) but only 660,000 or 24.8% were involved in testing drugs. What was happening to the other two million?

Under the 1986 Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act, the Home Office has each year to publish a report called Statistics of Scientific Procedures on Living Animals, giving detailed figures on what types of test have been carried out, what animals were used, how many tests were mildly distressing, how many severe, how many with or without anaesthetics, and so on. We are also told how the law is enforced, how many inspectors there are, how many visits they carried out, what percentage of these were unannounced, how many projects were found to be at fault, and what action was taken.

The heart of the Act is the requirement that the likely adverse effect on the animals used must be weighed against the benefit to humans, other animals or the environment which is likely to result from the work. This sounds fine, but it is in fact meaningless. How can we make such a calculation? To begin with most experiments produce no benefit, for the simple reason that they are only testing reasonable guesses - and some very unreasonable ones - and most guesses turn out to be wrong. But obviously you cannot tell in advance which these will be. If you could, you wouldn't test them. The word 'likely' is a fraud. The real question is 'How do you weigh one creature's certain suffering against a theoretically possible benefit to another?' and the honest answer is that you can't. So, if the 'other' is ourselves, guess who wins. The really interesting statistic would be, 'How many procedures have been considered and dropped because the adverse effect on the animals would be too severe'?

The Home Office does indeed classify projects by the severity of distress caused to the animals. Most procedures are rated 'mild' or 'moderate', but we are not told by whom - the scientists themselves, a committee in Whitehall or whom? Anyway, what do these terms mean, when we are told in a note that there can be no hard and fast rules about how severity is determined? We are also told that in 60% of procedures no anaesthetics were used: were these mild, moderately painful or what? And how strictly can the Home Office enforce what rules there are, when it has only 26 inspectors for the whole country, all of whom have much other work to do, and when we are told that in 2002 there were 26 infringements which were potentially criminal offences, but no licences were revoked and there were no prosecutions?

So what are the 2 million animals not involved in testing drugs used for? 864,000 of them found their way into 'fundamental biological research'. What does this mean? Sometimes it means no more than 'Let's do this and see what happens'. In 2001, in an international experiment, mice were given a powerful chemical to disrupt their genes, so that their offspring could then be screened for abnormalities. Of 26,000 mice screened by the British partners in this work, 98% showed no abnormalities and were destroyed. The growth area in this type of research is in 'transgenic' procedures, that is, introducing into one animal DNA from another unrelated to it. What actually happens to the animals in these tests? What are the objectives? Columns of figures tell you nothing.

Outside the field of transgenics, but still under the head of fundamental research, we are given information we can understand, and some of it is disquieting. Projects cited include: interference with organs of sight, hearing, smell or taste; interference with the brain; procedures deliberately causing psychological stress; aversive training, that is, training an animal to associate certain behaviour with unpleasant experiences; exposure to radiation; and physical injury to mimic human injury. Altogether over 110,000 animals were involved in these projects, which the Home Office listed as being of �particular interest.

These procedures were at least claimed, however speciously, to advance knowledge. But others have nothing to do with that. The largest single group of animals is that used for batch testing of products for safety and effectiveness, not just for the first time but routinely, often as required by British or foreign legislation. The numbers of animals strike one as prodigally wasteful. Why were 57,000 animals (including 440 beagles) needed to test the toxicity, that is, level of poison in agricultural chemicals? Why were 70,000 used for something called 'quality control'? Is anything achieved by these tests that could not be done as well by chemical analysis in a laboratory? Is it not the truth that they go on year after year because animals were used in the development phase of products and so they go on being used through sheer mental laziness and lack of political will?

Let us turn back for a moment to those animals used to test drugs. This has been a fiercely divisive issue. Some point to the fact that animals have played a part in developing many valuable medications. Without animals we might well never have had vaccines for polio, smallpox or tuberculosis, or the techniques that made transplants possible. Others say with equal justice that there have been many cases where the results of animal testing have been widely, even dangerously misleading. Thalidomide was the classic, tragic case. Indeed logic suggests that this is bound to be so. In veterinary research you would not test medication intended for a horse on a sheep.

The final and decisive test has to be clinical trials with human patients. Even where successful animal testing has been followed by success with humans, it is extraordinarily hard to prove that this was not just luck, and to analyse what, if anything, made the animal test a good predictor. For all these reasons many argue that we should put our main effort and funding into replacing animals with laboratory tests. At present we have a long way to go, but progress is being made with cultures of human cells or computer modelling. These methods have already produced new insights into asthma and Alzheimer's disease, and better results in eye problems than the current use of rabbits' eyes.

There is urgency in these matters, because governments across the world are now requiring vast programmes to see if environmental factors hitherto regarded as harmless may be a threat to health. We may see a huge rise in the number of animals employed in scientific procedures. Our own Government has recently set up a National Centre to reduce the number of such animals and to replace them with other methods; but it is to work within the Medical Research Council, which is a bastion of animal use, and will receive only 660,000-pounds a year.

As Christians who believe in a good Creator God and the primacy of the law of love we cannot look at facts like these, and pass by on the other side. But we, like many others in the animal welfare movement, are divided on what should be done. Some argue that it is wrong to subject any animal to pain and distress except for its own good or the good of its species, and that we should campaign for an immediate and total ban on such activities by law, adding that the alleged science in whose name they are carried on is bad science, unworthy of the name.

Others take a different view. They argue that to think in terms of an absolute, once for all ban is simply unreal. If it is taking so much effort to get Parliament to ban hunting with dogs, which most people condemn, how could we possibly get a ban on animal experiments, which most people think are good and necessary? There is a huge task of education and sheer hard political grind to be done.

But why need we be at odds over this? On the issue of principle we are surely at one. God has entrusted his human children with responsibility for the welfare of this earth and of all our fellow creatures. As part of that trust it is our duty to end all abuse of animals, including abuse by dubious science allegedly for our own good. That is the least that the Spirit of the Kingdom of God demands of us.

In pursuing that goal we need to seek pardon and acceptance from those friends of animals who have been driven far from Christ by our churches' indifference in the past. We need patience to change the hearts and minds of those who hold the levers of power. And when more and more the private sector is expected to fund good causes of all kinds, we have to find the resources to advance the devoted work of those scientists who are developing alternatives to the use of animals.

But when the cloud of fear no longer rests on mice and rats, dogs and cats, hamsters and guinea pigs, sheep and pigs, horses and donkeys, rabbits and monkeys, birds and fish, what a cloud of guilt and hardness of heart will be lifted from our human race!

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