Why Human Rights Come Before Animal Welfare

Violence Rises Against Research Efforts

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OXFORD, England, OCT. 30, 2004 (Zenit.org).- The use of animals in laboratory tests is continuing to draw violent protests in England. During the summer, contractors building a new research center for Oxford University pulled out after receiving threats. Montpellier, the parent company of the contractor, did not release details, but according to a July 20 report in London's Times, investors in the company had received letters from animal rights groups threatening them unless they sold their shares.



Most of the animals to be housed in the new center are rodents, along with some fish and primates. Oxford vowed to continue building the center with a new company. The problems come after Cambridge University abandoned plans in January for a neuroscience center involving research with animals due to sustained opposition by animal rights groups.

Shortly afterward, an adviser to animal rights groups in the United Kingdom, Jerry Vlasak, declared that assassinating animal researchers was legitimate, reported the Observer newspaper on July 25.

"I think violence is part of the struggle against oppression," Vlasak told the Sunday newspaper. "If something bad happens to these people [animal researchers], it will discourage others. It is inevitable that violence will be used in the struggle and that it will be effective." Vlasak likened animal experimentation to the Nazis' treatment of the Jews.

Vlasak has links to the organization Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty (Shac), which campaigns for the closure of Huntingdon Life Sciences. He has also advised Speak, an organization involved in the campaign forcing out the contractor for the research laboratory in Oxford, according to the Observer report.

Another activist, Greg Avery, was profiled by the Guardian on July 29. Avery has been involved in animal rights campaigns for 20 years. In 1999 he founded, and continues to run, Shac.

Avery predicted that even more extreme tactics will be used against those who work with companies linked to animal research. He described some of the more than 100 attacks against laboratories and their employees during the months preceding his interview with the newspaper. Tactics ranged from pouring paint stripper over people's cars to throwing bricks through windows. Avery declared that he believes the animal rights movement is engaged in legitimate protest.

The latest outbreak of violence by animal rights campaigners involved the theft and dismemberment of a body taken from a grave, the newspaper Independent reported Oct. 12. Glady Hammond's coffin was exhumed, police believe, because she was the mother-in-law of one of two brothers who run Darley Oaks Farm in Newchurch, Staffordshire, where guinea pigs are bred for medical research. The farm, and the entire village, has been subjected to repeated attacks by animal rights activists.

Tests defended

Animal tests were defended by a spokeswoman for the drug company GlaxoSmithKline. Susan Brownlove said it would not be ethical to give drugs to humans without knowing their effect in a "whole living body," the Times reported July 24.

Brownlove explained that when possible the company uses testing methods that do not involve animals, but that sometimes there is no viable alternative. She also noted that almost every medical breakthrough in the 20th century had come about as a result of animal research.

According to official government statistics, animal experiments are on the decline, having peaked in 1976. Data for 2002, the latest available, showed that in that year 2.73 million animals were used in tests, according to a report last July 30 in the Independent. The vast majority of tests, 84%, involved the use of mice, rats and other rodents. Birds accounted for 5%, fish another 7%. Dogs, cats, horses and primates account for less than 1%.

Nature's favorite?

Naturally, not all of those who defend the idea of rights for animals advocate violence. On a more intellectual plane the question of animals versus humans was considered in a recent book by philosopher Tibor Machen. In "Putting Humans First: Why We Are Nature's Favorite," Machen provides a succinct defense of why only humans can be considered to possess rights.

The most fundamental objection to the idea that animals have rights, he explained, is that only humans have the moral nature needed to ascribe to them rights. Humans alone, argues Machen, alone possess the capacity for free choice and the responsibility to act ethically.

We can sympathize with the plight of animals, or feel that they are similar to us, but this does not overcome the fact that humans and animals are two different kinds of entities. Machen draws attention to the wild state in which animals live, living in an amoral world. "Only human beings can be implored to do right rather than wrong," he observes. The concept of rights emerged with human civilization precisely because it is applicable to the specifically moral nature of human beings.

A simple observation of the world around us, explains Machen, reveals that there is a hierarchy, ranging from inanimate objects to plants and animals, and humans. It is with human beings that moral responsibility enters into consideration. "Normal human life involves moral tasks, and that is why we are more important than other beings in nature," he notes.

Vested interests

Some argue that animals have rights because they have interests that they need to fulfill, observes Machen. However, the mere fact of having interests is not enough to establish a right to something, he argues. Moreover, having rights also implies respecting reciprocal obligations of others. If animals were to have rights based on interests they would have obligations to others. But the animal kingdom does not function in this way. Zebras may have an interest in not being killed by a lion, but this does not imply any right that the lion is obliged to respect.

Dealing with another argument put forward by proponents of animal rights, Machen maintains that the case for human rights does not rest primarily on the level of intelligence or mental capacity of an individual, "but rather on their particular type of consciousness."

Other animal rights advocates do not rely on arguments based on interests or capacities, but maintain that all life is sacred and that we may not intrude on it. A variant of this position is the argument that nature is sacred and thus it is morally wrong to disturb it.

But this argument is simply impractical, Machen notes, because we could not live without killing some animals. The question also arises as to what or who makes nature sacred? And, could it not be possible that humans have been blessed in some way so as render our use of nature acceptable?

Suffering and morality

Sometimes, people are simply distressed over the idea that animals feel pain or suffer, and they wish to ascribe them rights as a way of avoiding these problems, Machen acknowledges. Yet, the mere fact of having rights does not eliminate suffering, as human experience amply demonstrates, he observes.

Moreover, denying animals the possibility of having rights does not mean that there are no ethical limits on how humans treat them. Human morality, Machen notes, involves more than just rights. The exercise of virtues such as temperance and moderation are also important. Therefore, when someone behaves in a cruel or wasteful toward animals, this can be rightly said to damage their moral character.

But, if a reckless disregard for the life or well-being of animals demonstrates a defect of character, this does mean we cannot use animals in a responsible way to obtain needed benefits, concludes Machen. The important element here is to distinguish capricious conduct from what is needed for human welfare. A distinction those concerned for animals would do well to keep in mind.