Abusing the weak

We don’t believe that sacrificing a few babies would be worth it if it helped to cure cancer – and w

At its heart, the case for animal experimentation rests on a simple utilitarian equation: animal suffering in medical research is worth less than the human benefit that results. This received wisdom appears rational and self-evident but the simplicity of the utilitarian argument is no more than the attractive face of an ugly reality.

If utilitarianism were really our guiding principle, we would experiment on ourselves. Ninety per cent of drugs that pass animal tests fail in humans and billions of dollars are wasted on animal research that leads us down blind alleys. Involving people in the dangerous, speculative early stages of medical research would yield benefits for the rest of us. But we don’t believe that sacrificing a few babies would be worth it if it helped to cure cancer – and we are absolutely right. Means don’t justify ends, so why do we think they do when it comes to animals?

This discrimination relies on difference (as the abuse of the weak by the strong always does). Animals lack our mental powers, moral capacities and a place in our community, goes the argument. But we don’t apply that principle to our own mentally, socially or morally subnormal and experiment on the sick, the isolated or the criminal. Universal human rights don’t rest on our capacities, which are not universal, but on our vulnerabilities, which are. If we can be hurt and if we value our lives, we earn the right to moral protection. Animals suffer and want to live too. If we recognise that the basis of human rights is the protection of the weak, we cannot deny the most basic of those rights to others who suffer and are powerless.

Animals aren’t means to our ends - but even if they were, the calculation is wrong. The only sure outcomes of animal experiments are dead animals. Millions of animal experiments have failed to yield cures to AIDS, strokes, Alzheimer’s and other diseases. How can we say that a speculative theoretical benefit outweighs the known cost in suffering and death? This isn’t balancing saving a dog against saving a duchess – it’s balancing a known against an unknown. And, crucially, that’s something we don’t need to do.

According to Unicef, around 10 million children under five die of preventable causes each year. Meanwhile, if you’re working class in the UK, you’re likely to die seven years earlier than a professional. Forty percent of all cancers can be prevented and many can be cured yet, to quote the World Health Organisation “more than 70% of all cancer deaths occur in . . . countries, where resources available for prevention, diagnosis and treatment . . . are limited or nonexistent.” If saving lies is our goal, we can achieve that without a single mouse being given cancer or a single monkey poisoned to death.

If cost-benefit is our guide, why not sell our iPods and use the money to buy life-saving mosquito nets? While those of us who are fortunate and privileged are unwilling to live a little less comfortably to save people ourselves, we earnestly endorse the wholesale killing of animals on the merest possibility of benefit. Talk of a moral obligation to inflict harm is cant: sacrificing others before making the merest sacrifice yourself is a long, long way from doing the right thing.

We can have medical research without animals but the issue is bigger than that. The case for inflicting justified harm – whether made by governments, scientists or terrorists – must always be treated with suspicion. Animal experimentation is an act of unconscious hypocrisy by a society whose values – including the real value we put on human life - are confused and inconsistent, and whose moral capacities are far, far more rudimentary than we like to believe.

Alistair Currie is senior research and campaigns coordinator for the UK affiliate of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), the world’s largest animal rights organisation. His work focusses on animal experimentation. Prior to taking up full-time work in animal rights, he worked as a registered nurse for 17 years.
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Britain's badger malaise: have the mistrust and misdirection gone too far to cure?

The expansion of the badger cull is dividing rural England and revealing a worrying lack of research enterprise on the part of the government.

Infra-red cameras that fit on top of drones, and devices that can track the signal from police radios: if the new tactics used by anti badger-cull activists appear almost military, that’s because they are.

A leading activist in the protest group Stop the Cull, Jay Tiernan, previously served in the British Army’s Royal Corp of Signals and has helped propel the movement’s technological upgrade.

But don’t mistake this army-like organisation for aggression. Jay left the armed forces when he could no longer reconcile himself to killing for a living – or even to eat: “I convinced myself to go vegetarian and became philosophical to the point where I believed that all life should be treated equal,” he says. He later stepped down from the fox-hunt saboteur movement because he found the risk of becoming caught up in a brawl too great: “I didn’t want to have to be worrying about that.”

In contrast, disrupting a badger cull carries less risk of person-on-person confrontation. Law-abiding protesters look out for badger traps near their local walks, Jay says, and inform others who are willing to go out and destroy them. More-involved activists also attempt to track down the groups of trained marksmen who gather to shoot the badgers. By simply revealing their presence, the activists can force the marksmen to leave the area for safety reasons, he explains.

Yet despite the emphasis on non-direct confrontation, the costs to the state of policing badger culls are still substantial. In 2016 the police costs in Somerset alone reached more than £700,000 – equivalent to £3,277 for every badger killed. Jay himself received a suspended sentence for breaching an injunction designed to keep him away from those involved in the culls.

Many farmers hold that killing badgers is a necessary part of the Government’s wider 25-year strategy for eradicating bovine tuberculosis in cattle. How else could isolated herds be contracting the infection other than via the disease-carrying badger, they ask?

But campaigners and scientists dispute this logic, pointing to the detection of the disease in everything from soil, to sheep and cats. Professor Rosie Woodroffe from the Zoological Society of London has told the Guardian that the benefits of culling remain “uncertain”. While according to Lord Krebs, who worked on a massive pilot cull between 1997 and 2007, the present government trial was not set up as a legitimate experiment, has not monitored badger numbers properly, and has no independent oversight.

The result is spiralling antagonism, both online and in the fields. Over the last week I’ve listened on the phone as one anti-cull campaigner broke down in tears: “If we can’t live with our wildlife in a country as wealthy and educated as this, what hope is there for the rest of the world?” she said. She also asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution from cull supporters – a fellow campaigner once had an “eviscerated” badger nailed to her gate, she told me.

On the other hand, I’ve spoken to farmers whose distress at losing their livestock shouldn’t be under-estimated. David Barton challenges anyone to not be moved by the video of his diseased cows being shot on his farm in Gloucestershire: “I’m getting out of beef because I can’t emotionally carry on doing this,” he says in the National Farmers Union-sponsored film. There are also claims that the anti-cull protestors resort to intimidation too – like this Tory MP, who in 2013 accused anti-cull “scroungers” of leaving a dead badger on his doorstep.

So why has the debate reached such deadlock? And with the cull set to be extended to 11 new areas this autumn, raising the possibility of up to 33,347 badger deaths, is this mutual mistrust set to become endemic?

Political history plays a part here. In 2013, Patrick Barkham, argued in the Guardian that there were symbolic reasons why it was beneficial for David Cameron’s government to show solidarity with rural communities over the cull. And after Theresa May’s campaign U-turn on scrapping a fox hunting vote, there is little chance she will want to undo that work.

The welfare debate also has aspects which undermine hope of reconciliation. Jay Tiernan is vegan, for example, and is heavily opposed to many aspects of mainstream cattle farming in the UK. He doesn’t “hate” farmers for this, he explains, because hate is unproductive – in fact he admires the hard work they put in. But this doesn’t extend to sympathy for their situation. “I used to be a soldier and would have killed for money, so who am I to judge,” he says, “but I don’t have sympathy for them: they should get another job.”

Some vegan views are problematic for farmers. It not only reduces their market, but can also be seen as a moral judgement on their whole profession. It all adds to a feeling of being ganged up on by activists and left-wing politicians.

When Green Party co-leader Jonathan Bartley called for the government to “fully roll out a humane vaccinations programme for both badgers and cows”, farmer David Barton found the statement “irresponsible and stupid” – considering there is at present no such cattle vaccine available to farmers. While farmer Philip Latham tells me the idea he dislikes badgers couldn't be further from the truth – he even has a hide on his farm from when he spent hours watching them as a boy.

Yet perhaps most problematic of all is the heightened focus on badgers, rather than on other ways the disease spreads. The government's latest report concludes that the unadjusted incidence rate ratios “revealed no statistically significant differences” between cull and non-cull areas – and says that more monitoring and analysis is necessary. But with pro-cull sympathisers often citing research that showed culling reduced TB in cattle by up to 16 percent, and anti-cull sympathisers citing the cover letter to the same report, which said culling could “make no meaningful contribution to cattle TB control”, there is little to suggest that new analysis won’t fall into the same black hole.

The result? A public ever less trusting of the value of evidence. “The data that has just come out has divided farmers and scientists,” says David Barton. "As ever they can do what they want with it and make it work for them.”

Surely a more productive solution is improved support for research into other aspects of disease control, such as improving cattle testing as I wrote about here? Even the National Farmers Union says it “would like to improve cattle testing and believe that the best way to do that would be through research on better diagnostics".

More research will cost more money, but so will killing badgers. And as Brexit approaches, we must improve confidence in our disease control – or risk digging our farming industry its own very big hole.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.