Monkey research has benefits, equal rights philosopher admits
Robin McKie, science editor
Sunday November 26, 2006
One of the most important figures in the animal rights movement has publicly backed the use of living creatures in medical experiments. The endorsement - by the philosopher Peter Singer, who coined the phrase Animal Liberation and whose Seventies book on the subject led to the creation of the animal rights movement - has surprised observers.
Singer, professor of bioethics at Princeton, is renowned for insisting animals should have equal rights with humans but is quoted, on camera, backing research in which experiments on monkeys are carried out to develop surgery for Parkinson's and other patients.
'It is clear at least some animal research does have benefits,' Singer admits on Monkeys, Rats and Me: Animal Testing, which will be screened on BBC2 tomorrow. 'I would certainly not say that no animal research could be justified and the case you have given sounds like one that is justified.'
The admission has delighted scientists, including the Oxford surgeon Tipu Aziz, the doctor involved in this work. 'It is a very encouraging sign,' he said.
The BBC2 documentary focuses on animal rights activists' battle to block the building of the £20m Oxford University animal laboratory. Construction was abandoned in 2004 after a campaign of intimidation led builders to pull out of the project. Work resumed this year.
The programme, the most thorough TV examination of this vexed subject, includes graphic footage of electrodes being drilled into the skull of a rat which is later put down, on camera, by lethal injection. There is also footage of a monkey being prepared for a similar experiment. But viewers will also see a young Scottish boy, Sean Gardner, crippled by the movement disease dystonia, taking his first, tentative steps from his wheelchair, after similar surgery involving electrodes being drilled into his skull.
The documentary is being screened as the battle over the Oxford laboratory reaches fresh intensity, with a new group of opponents announcing it will hold its first public meeting in Oxford on Tuesday. The Voice for Ethical Research at Oxford (Vero) has been set up by university staff and students opposed to animal experiments and is backed by senior politicians, including Tony Benn and Ann Widdecombe.
Vero has been launched to counter the highly successful pro-laboratory group Pro-Test, created by 17-year-old student Laurie Pycroft last February. Pro-Test capitalised on local people's weariness of the laboratory's hard-line opponents, led by the animal liberation group Speak, whose members gather near the site to scream abuse at workers.
Last week Sharon Howe, Vero's founder, admitted many local people had become alienated by hardline anti-vivisectionists. 'The debate is so polarised, it is impossible to have a sensible discussion. We want greater efforts to be made in developing alternatives to animal experiment.'
In addition, the Weatherall committee - set up by scientific organisations that include the Royal Society and Wellcome Trust - will publish the results of its investigation into the use of primates in university and other academic labs. Several thousand primates - mostly macaques and marmosets - are experimented on every year to discover how neurons connect with the eye, to find out how images form in the brain, and to make other basic scientific discoveries.
The committee, chaired by the Oxford geneticist Sir David Weatherall, was asked to investigate this highly contentious subject and decide whether this science is sound and relevant to humans. According to sources close to the committee, the report, which will be published on 13 December, will back the continued use of primates for this sort of research. 'Weatherall has concluded it is good science and that it is relevant,' said a source.