By Professor Mike Barer, University of Leicester.
The opening of any substantial new research facility in this University is cause for celebration; however, that we should publicly celebrate the commissioning of a building concerned with use of animals in biomedical research has drawn comment. Extreme views about animal research have provoked a clandestine approach amongst investigators and their employers and a sense that this is a special area subject to distinct considerations from those that might be applied to other aspects of animal exploitation. The basic arguments for and against research using animals have been well rehearsed and I will not repeat them here. My concern is to review such research as an example of a human activity that we debate poorly in public and, in consequence, both sustain entrenched attitudes and, more seriously, perpetuate an anodyne approach to the public discourse.
Research using animals is just one example of how human beings exploit other sentient creatures for their own benefit. I suggest that a serious consideration of the ethical issues requires a discussion of the use of animals in all aspects of our lives. How hungry, poorly clothed and sick would you be today if you were to systematically eliminate every element of your life that depends on animal exploitation? Your examination should not stop there; consider how our home and recreational lives might change if we placed the wellbeing of animals ahead of our own lifestyle choices. You might include the keeping of certain pets and sports involving animals here.
How might we differentiate animal experimentation from our use of animals in other areas? One way might be to consider the necessity of the activity. Food and clothing both have an element of necessity and speak to the origins and evolution of humankind. Our ancestors successfully competed with other animals, ate them and clothed themselves with their skins and fur; for the most part this was a matter of survival. An instinct towards these ways of living would not be a surprising result from this background.
As our forebears began to farm, we created new breeds that served first our needs then our desires and, I believe, the seeds of our present and prevalent confused thinking about animal exploitation were sewn. This confusion is compounded by the sense that hegemony over animals is our heritage and that their exploitation is our birthright. Of course, the notion of exploitation in this regard is recent and substantially relates to recognition that use of animals for food and other products is no longer necessary for our survival. Moreover, as necessity declines it becomes increasingly apparent that animal use in every respect is a matter of choice, which, for those that care, must be guided by ethical considerations. To me this is an essential feature of a society that seeks to become more civilised.
I do not claim that medical research is a core necessity that trumps all other forms of animal exploitation (though others might do so). Rather, I appeal to those that denounce the use of animals in research to consider the validity of this position against all those other areas in which we exploit animals. Although the issues are complex my own attempts in this area lead me to recognise a personal hierarchy of those activities that I find more or less acceptable. This does not mean that I am comfortable with my conclusions or my choices or that they are completely consistent with this hierarchy. Like many others there are contradictions; I do not eat meat but I do consume fish, eggs and dairy products, I also wear leather shoes and feed my pets meat. I also support the use of animals in carefully considered research.
I appeal to you to consider all aspects of our behaviour towards animals against your ethics and establish your own hierarchies.
Mike Barer is one of four Directors of Research at the University of Leicester. He is a clinically qualified microbiologist and his own research is on Tuberculosis.