The human cost of animal rights
Head of Education and Outreach, John Meredith, considers the human cost of banning animal research.
Two years ago, in June 2012, the Swiss federal Institute of Technology published a paper in Science in which they claimed to have helped paralyzed rats to walk again.
As usual, anti-vivisection and animal rights organisations called for the research to be banned. This year, thanks in part to this pioneering research, Darek Fidyka became the first human being to recover the ability to walk after having his spinal cord severed.
If the animal rights groups had had their way, dozens of rats would have been spared the discomfort of experimental surgery, but Mr Fidyka would probably be spending the rest of his life in a wheelchair.
It is a pattern we see over and over again: an admirable concern for the welfare of animals that is blind to the cost in human suffering that it entails. Banning animal research does not remove pain and suffering, it transfers it to the human victims of conditions that medical research will, one day, be able to treat. The price of an easy conscience is human agony.
Such blindness is understandable, of course. The harm to animals is in the present and the potential benefits are in the future, sometimes unclear and hard to discern. But we cannot let ourselves off the ethical hook. The briefest glance at recent medical history throws it into stark relief. If activists had ‘liberated’ Banting and Best’s beagles almost 100 years ago, thousands of people would still be incarcerated in the diabetic coma wards that we have forgotten to remember even existed. If Norman Shumway had not first shown that hearts could be transplanted between dogs, Christiaan Barnard would never have been able to attempt the same in human beings. If researchers had not been able to sever the spinal cords in rats, Darek Fidyka would never have walked again. And how many tens of thousands will walk in his footsteps in the years to come?
This year we saw the pattern begin to unfold again as the joint winner of the Nobel prize for medicine, London-based John O’Keefe, immediately excited the anger of animal rights groups because of his invasive research on rats. It must be stopped, we were told, it causes discomfort and suffering for the animals and delivers no benefits to human beings except an increase in our knowledge about how the brain works. But this new understanding of the brain could lead to therapies for harrowing conditions such as Alzheimer’s disease that we can hardly begin to predict. If we fall for the illusion that the animals can be spared now at no cost to humans later on, we could be condemning millions to suffering that is almost literally beyond imagination.
Someone somewhere may just be being born who will be the first person to be spared the ravages of Alzheimer’s because of John O’Keefe’s research into the brains of rats. After the first will come millions more. Do we know for certain? No, we don’t. But one thing we do know is that if we drop animal research today, before we have found alternative ways of understanding how the brain works, we will have no hope whatsoever of alleviating the suffering of the nameless victims tomorrow.