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No Right to Protest?
Posted 1 June 2006
Over the past few weeks the government, prominent academics and drugs companies have lined up to vilify anyone who opposes the use of animals in experiments and represent them as violent and fanatical thugs. Seeking to reshape public opinion through smear tactics is a tried-and-tested political trick that diverts the public's attention away from issues that affect them most - in this case, the senseless use of animals as models for human disease and the immorality of doing so.
Two weeks ago, Tony Blair announced that he would add his name to an online petition in support of animal experiments. Writing in the Sunday Telegraph, he polarised the debate as 'individuals and companies engaged in life-saving medical research' versus 'the tiny group of extremists threatening medical research and advances in this country'. In characterising all opponents to animal experimentation as dangerous terrorists, he refuses to acknowledge that there is a well-founded, intellectually-based opposition. The many people within the scientific community who disagree with the use of animals in experiments, like activists, have their voices quashed.
In the week following this public show of support for vivisection by the Prime Minister, YouGov conducted a survey into the public's views on animal experiments. This highly publicised poll suggested a shift away from the traditional pattern of 35-40 per cent supporting animal experiments and found 70 per cent endorsed the use of animals in medical research, If accurate, this would not be surprising given recent media coverage. However, a more recent Sky News poll of one million people found that less than 49 per cent supported animal experiments. And a similar Sky News poll of 57,000 people conducted two months ago found that just 24 per cent agreed that 'we need animal testing'. It is certainly possible that the recent barrage of attacks by sections of the media on all those who oppose animal experiments has had a significant effect on the public's perceptions.
Within this climate of hostility, Oxford University sought an extension to its injunction against activists campaigning to stop the building of a new animal-testing facility. The university brought this action under the 1997 Protection from Harassment Act, seeking a four-mile exclusion zone, a ban on the use of megaphones, a reduction in the number of protestors to 12 and a ban on demonstrators within 100 yards of a 'protected person's' home. The court order upheld some of the University's requests and rejected others.
Against this backdrop of hysterical reportage and media manipulation, there is another story. Two hundred and forty MPs have signed an Early Day Motion expressing their concerns over the reliability of animal experiments 'particularly in light of the large numbers of serious and often fatal adverse drug reactions that were not predicted by animal studies'. Additionally, a 2004 survey of 500 GPs commissioned by Europeans for Medical Progress found that 82 per cent were concerned that animal data can be misleading when applied to humans and 83 per cent supported an independent scientific evaluation of the clinical relevance of animal experimentation. So much for Blair's 'tiny group of extremists'.
Meanwhile, evidence is piling up that animal tests conducted prior to drugs being administered to people cannot be trusted. In the past month:
- GlaxoSmithKline finally admitted that Seroxat, Britain's bestselling antidepressant, can cause adults and children to become suicidal, after denying problems with the drug for years.
- Clinical trials by the manufacturer of the new five-in-one vaccine showed that 64 per cent of babies injected experienced an adverse reaction, including convulsions and loss of consciousness.
- The British Medical Association announced that at least 250,000 people are hospitalised every year as a result of adverse drug reactions. An earlier survey announced that the death toll could be as high as 10,000.
- The Guardian cited a 2004 study which found that damaging side-effects of drugs are responsible for 4 per cent of hospital bed capacity and cost the NHS £466m a year.
Add to this, the recent high-profile cases of Vioxx - the animal-tested arthritis drug which is found to have caused up to 140,000 heart attacks and strokes before being withdrawn recently - and the TGN1412 disaster that left six men with organ failure after animal tests failed to predict these effects, and it is clear why such a huge backlash has been orchestrated by those who stand to lose should animal experiments be publicly discredited. By seeking to manipulate public opinion through the more frenzied sections of the media, governments, academics and drugs companies aim to divert attention away from the ever-growing body of evidence that proves animal experiments are not reliable predictors of human reactions. When protest becomes effective, it must be stifled. The fact that vivisection's proponents are now fighting so hard and so dirty to stifle opposition to animal experiments signals a shift in fortunes and these recent events may just indicate that the days of relying on outdated, illogical and painful experiments on animals are numbered.