Tested by Animals

Using animal testing for experiments in germline gene therapy is doubly repugnant

By George Monbiot. Published in the Big Issue 23rd November 1998.

At first sight, last week’s ban on using animals for cosmetic testing looked like a great victory for animal rights. In truth, however, it will make scarcely a scratch in the mountain of suffering taking place in British laboratories. Of 2.64 million animal experiments licenced every year in Britain, only 1,266 involved the testing of cosmetics. Most testing for the British market takes place abroad.

The total number of animal experiments in Britain has fallen slightly through the 1990s, but in one category it has exploded. Last year, the number of animals used for genetic tests rose to 352,732, 64 per cent more than in 1995.

Personally, I believe that certain forms of animal testing are morally acceptable. I also believe that some applications of medical genetics are likely to enhance human welfare. But some of these experiments are torturing animals, while posing the gravest of threats to human society.

Genetics is the great new frontier of human medicine. Before too long, scientists tell us, genetic tests in GP’s surgeries will be as commonplace as blood tests: both diagnoses and cures for genetically-linked diseases could become faster and more precise. But there are other medical applications of genetics whose benefits are dubious, and whose hazards could scarcely be overstated.

“Germline gene therapy” involves altering the genes of an embryo so that both it and its descendants are permanently changed. At the moment, human germline therapy is both technically impossible and illegal. There are excellent reasons for banning it. The moment we allow scientists to tinker permanently with the genetic code is the moment we open the door to attempts to guarantee that children will be tall, beautiful, intelligent or heterosexual. Inevitably, only the rich would be able to afford such treatments. They, the “genetic elect”, would feel themselves set apart from the rest of us. The inequality, classism and racism we suffer from today would look insignificant beside the “genism” this would inevitably unleash.

It’s easy to ban these technologies, as they aren’t yet feasible. But in laboratories all over Britain, vivisectors are working feverishly on techniques which could, one day, make such treatments viable. The moment they succeed is the moment that the ban becomes impossible to sustain.

Look at what happened to the man with the red flag who walked in front of the early motorcars. Today, as we count the hundreds of thousands killed by the car, and the millions poisoned or maimed, he begins to look like a reasonable precaution. But as soon as cars were able comfortably to travel faster than a walking man, the rich and powerful clamoured to have the obstacle removed, and society’s moral compass had to be reset to accommodate their demands. The car’s terrible toll is now seen as the sad but inevitable cost of convenience.

Animal experimentation can only be justified when it attempts to enhance human welfare. When its likely outcome is the shattering of society, it is a repugnant and disgusting waste of life.