Wednesday, 15 August 2012

Animal Research - the most polarising issue?

The use of animals in research continues to be the most polarising issue in the debate over animal rights; animal welfare; and what constitutes an appropriate human/animal relationship.

It seems that not more than a few weeks can pass without the media opening up the debate over the use of animals in research. Yet despite extensive writing on the topic, the views expressed by commentators are often polarising and rarely move the discussion forward in a meaningful way. Moreover, in cases where readers can leave comments about what they have read, the opinions posted are often vitriolic and rarely constructive. 

A case in point is an article written by Helen Marston from Humane Research Australia. Helen wrote about her personal battle with breast cancer and the ways in which she reflected on laboratory animals while undergoing treatment. Her article attracted some 360 odd responses from readers, many of whom aggressively objected to what she had to say. The commentary from readers quickly became personal with one reader writing that he could tell from Helen's photo that she's fat. I assume that the fat comment was intended to suggest that being overweight causes cancer. What is clear from such occurrences is that the use of animals in research generates passion, yet few people have much of value to add to the debate. 

A further example of the polarising nature of the animals in research debate is the way in which the Conversation website has dealt with the issue in recent weeks. 

On August 6th the Conversation carried an opinion piece which argued that the use of animals in research is inherently flawed. Monika Merkes wrote:

There are many other examples showing animal testing to have very poor predictive value for human diseases and toxicity. But animals are still used in laboratories all over the world to test the safety, toxicity and effectiveness of drugs. In fact, (and rather paradoxically) animal testing was made mandatory by drug regulators after the thalidomide tragedy. During the more than four decades since, it has become clear that animal tests fail to accurately predict human responses. And now, new testing methods are available.

That article also attracted numerous responses, many of which were polarising, and some of which attached the author. 

Then on August 9th, in response to Monika's article, the Conversation carried a second piece on animal research titled 'Animals-based research is still relevant and necessary'. In that article the author, Swetha Srinivasa Murali from the University of Sydney, wrote: 

Drug development is a slow process involving years, even decades, of research and animal models have always been integral to this work. 

As in the other cases, the article generated quite a debate among readers.

The same polarising tendency is evident in a piece published on The Independent online site in which the author asks: 'should testing on animals be banned?' That author affords equal space to two guest authors who go on to make polar opposite arguments. The first writes that animal research is cruel and unnecessary. The other argues that while animal research may at time be cruel, it is vitally necessary if we want medical advancement. The conclusion? There is none because both authors make opposing claims and when pushed I'm sure that both could produce a host of experts to back up their position. 

So where does this leave readers? I would suggest that it leaves us with very little to go on. Thankfully we now seem to have a consensus on the observation that the use of animals in research may cause animals to suffer. But is it beneficial? Both sides of the debate cross their heart and swear that they are telling the truth. But those truths appear to be mutually exclusive and the current form of intellectual engagement seems to be bringing us no closer to a consensus on the issue.  

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