A legal initiative is underway in Germany to give animal-rights organizations the standing to sue scientists and others who violate animal rights granted in a 2002 amendment to the German constitution. Animal-rights activists argue that the constitution offers no way of enforcing those rights. "Animal experiments have to be 'necessary' and 'ethically justified,' but those are vague legal terms," says Eisenhart von Loeper, an attorney and chairman of People for Animal Rights Germany. "There is almost no help from the courts to work out what this actually means."
To the scientific community in Germany, the initiative is a threat to basic research in their country. "Scientists wouldn't be able to plan ahead any longer," says Heinz Brandstetter at the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry in Martinsried. He reckons the chances of animal-rights groups winning court cases are low, but any court action may considerably delay the experiments in question.
As a result, says Brandstetter, many researchers may decide to stay away from Germany. von Loeper believes the law will have mainly a preventive effect. "Legal action will be the exception," he says.
Experience in Switzerland suggests von Loeper may be correct. Since 1991, the canton Zurich has an attorney who represents animals in criminal animal welfare cases. Animal welfare organizations in that canton also have an indirect standing to sue: Before animal experiments are approved, they are evaluated by a committee of eight representatives of the research community and three representatives of animal welfare organizations. Based on that committee's recommendations, research proposals are approved or rejected. However, if three members of the committee are not happy with that decision, they may jointly file a recourse (after all, a recommendation is passed by majority vote, so there may be a disagreeing minority).
Since introduction of this law, "scientists have learned to take greater care when planning their experiments and formulating their research proposals," says zoologist Bernhard Trachsel of the Zurich Animal Protection Society.
The German Upper House (Bundesrat) will decide in June whether or not to present the proposed law to the Lower House (Bundestag). Their proposal, however, may be more problematic, says Trachsel, as it is not clear which animal-rights organizations would be granted standing. Some are strictly against animal experiments and would probably delay or block every proposal.
"They are pouring the baby out with the bath water," agrees Antoine Goetschel, Switzerland's leading expert in animal protection law. He doesn't give the current German proposal much chance. However, he believes it will be only a question of time before the topic will come up again, since the interest in animal rights is increasing: Liechtenstein wants to introduce animal attorneyship, based on the Zurich model. Austria is moving towards introducing a federal animal protection law. In France and Switzerland, recent legal changes mean that animals are no longer considered objects. And in Italy, students recently gained the freedom of conscience to opt out of animal experiments.