UK rules against animal rights group

Decision stemmed from scientific organizations' complaints against a group decrying animal experiments

By | December 7, 2005

British medical researchers have welcomed a ruling today (December 7) by the UK advertising watchdog the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA), which has upheld complaints against an organization that released written material arguing that animal experiments can be inaccurate or fatal when applied to human diseases. As a result of the ruling, the organization, called Europeans for Medical Progress (EMP), is under pressure to amend certain claims it made in leaflets.

The decision, based on five complaints from the UK Research Defence Society (RDS) and the Association of Medical Research Charities (AMRC), is a victory for scientists who say that the issue of animal experiments has been skewed in the UK because of vociferous -- and sometimes misleading -- protests from activists.

"The fact that the argument is hijacked by a few people with extreme views, distorts it," said Roger Morris, a neurobiologist at King's College London. Researchers said the ruling may give them the opportunity to publicize the ASA's support of animal research in this case, with the ultimate hope of garnering more political support for animal research.

The subject of the complaints - the charity EMP - believes that animal testing is not necessary to advance medical research. "Medical progress will continue to be made, as it always has been, by clinical observation - not by animal experimentation, which is merely an irrelevant diversion," Kathy Archibald, director of EMP, told The Scientist. The EMP leaflet, however, went a step further and claimed that people are dying every day because research funding is wasted on studying animals, and that animal experimentation "directly harms humans."

The ASA, however, ruled that there is lack of evidence to prove this. "Even those antivivisection groups which masquerade as scientific organizations cannot get away with presenting their opinions as fact," said Simon Festing, director of the Research Defence Society.

Now RDS wants to publicize the ruling, especially to members of parliament (MPs) who might tend towards the views of the EMP. In May this year, legislators in parliament introduced a motion that called for further inquiry into the usefulness of animal testing. RDS plans to write to the 138 MPs who have signed the motion. Clare Stanford, psychopharmacologist at University College London, said that she hopes this latest ruling will help encourage MPs who were against animal testing in research to reconsider their position.

Indeed, some MPs are already taking a less polarized view. A new motion with 43 signatures to date, put down by Ian Gibson, former chair of the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee, supports a recent report on the ethics of research involving animals. This model accepts that animal models are necessary, but advocates reviews to make improvements to minimize animal suffering.

The ASA ruling is the second this year on animal experimentation literature. In the other decision, the ASA upheld a complaint from the EMP against a claim in an AMRC leaflet that animal experiments were essential for the major medical advances of the last century.

"Even the government now accepts that non-animal research techniques are 'advanced methods'," Gill Langley of the Dr Hadwen Trust, a medical charity that develops research methods to replace animal experiments, told The Scientist. Researchers maintain that they are investigating non-animal methods. But in many cases, they say there is still no alternative to using animals to find cures for diseases.

Morris said he's glad this case provides scientists with the opportunity to publicize the fact that often, animal research may be necessary. "Many more researchers are standing up and saying what they're doing."

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