Comment: Vivisecting the anti-vivisectionists

March, 2003

by Jon Entine

Social investors and animal rights activists should accept that some scientific research involving animals really is necessary, argues Jon Entine

The circus no doubt warmed the hearts of some ”ethical” business supporters but should have turned the soul of anyone interested in human rights. Fresh-faced young girls and boys, protesting outside of a public meeting debating the fate of a proposed international neuroscience research centre near Cambridge (Britain), brandished posters of monkeys with heads smeared with blood-like red paint.

”No primate research,” one sign shouted. Cries of ”don’t torture monkeys,” rang out. Despite their best efforts, these suburban-scrubbed protesters could not hide the ugly scowl of intimidation that shadows animal rights activists.

So why is this an issue of corporate social responsibility?

The anti-science protests are the work of the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV), and part of a worldwide web of animal rights extremists that include America’s own PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. If these activists should prevail, they will scuttle what could be one of the most advanced, and animal-welfare sensitive, biological research centres in the world. But more disturbing, animal rights fundamentalists – and those who enable them in the corporate responsibility community – are fanning distrust of medical research by the public already softened by pandering by government officials and so-called ethical consumer groups.

Perhaps it’s time to vivisect the anti-vivisectionists.

Animal rights has a noble history, beginning in 19th century England, when angry protests curtailed the casual exploitation of animals. The Achilles’ heal of animal research has always been the beauty business, which had casually and often irresponsibly piggybacked on far more consequential disease and drug studies. A turning point in the US came in 1980 when a New York teacher named Henry Spira ran full-age ads in The New York Times asking "How Many Rabbits Does Revlon Blind for Beauty’s Sake?" By the end of that year, Revlon had capitulated, pledging money to research alternatives at Johns Hopkins University to the dreaded Draize eye test on rabbits.

Even cosmetic industry apologists now admit that corporations were then doing far more tests than necessary to meet safety concerns. By the late-1980s, Food and Drug Administration documents indicate that the industry had reduced animal testing by 96%, all-but eliminated it on finished products, and virtually phased out the two most controversial tests, Draize eye and LD-50.

That’s the good news. The integrity factor of animal rights extremists goes sharply downhill from there. Over the past decade, the movement has slid from highlighting abuse in cosmetics to stirring hysteria about legitimate and necessary medical research to alleviate human suffering.

Fundamentalists such as PETA like to portray themselves as mere monitors trying to ensure that animals are not abused. That’s a disingenuous cover. PETA’s stated agenda is no less than to convert society to vinyl shoe-wearing soy-based pseudo-cheese lovers. All animal testing would be banned, even on life-saving drugs. The BUAV, while less confrontational, is committed to ”ending animal experimentation outright,” in the words of former director Mike Baker.

Screening or marketing?

Some ethical investing leaders are enthusiastic supporters of such extremist positions. Co-Op America, a leading ”green” consumer information group, actively promotes PETA boycotts, including against medical research. Animal screens remain a central tenet of social investing, particularly in Britain and Australia. For example, EIRIS – the Ethical Investment Research Service – boasts that it can screen 2500 companies worldwide for their animal rights position. Janice Carpenter, co-president of Australia’s Ethical Investment Association and principal of a socially focused financial planning firm, actively promotes her animal rights screening services.

According to a 1995 Social Investment Forum survey, 24 percent of US social portfolios screened for animal rights – more than for employee rights including workplace treatment of women and minorities. Animal screens began to fade in the late ‘90s but roared back to prominence recently, inspired by protests like the worldwide campaign against Cambridge-based Huntingdon Life Sciences. (In December, Britain’s Department of Trade and Industry agreed to insure the company in the wake of death threats by an animal activist group, Stop Huntingdon Animal Cruelty). According to the latest SIF survey, between 30-49 percent of social portfolios focus on animal testing – higher than for executive compensation or international labour standards.

For many social investors, animal screens reflect uncompromising absolutism, not a nuanced ethical or scientific stance. ”I don’t care if [a company] is about to cure cancer or not, ” says Robert Loest, head of the IPS Millennium Fund, one of numerous funds with animal rights as a central negative screen. ”If they test on animals and are intransigent about it, I’m adamant about not investing in them.” The IPS Millennium Fund ranks in the bottom 1 percentile for performance over the past three years.

Even social funds that in practice play down animal screens – for example, influential Trillium Asset Management of Boston – demagogue the issue for marketing gain. ”From fast food restaurants to product testing laboratories,” Trillium writes on its website, ”corporations are deeply engaged in the abuse of animals.” Huh? What world do they live in, if not a cynical one that assumes that the very existence of companies is the root of all evil.

This blathering might be acceptable as mere marketing froth if its consequences were not so deeply felt. Some of the most dramatic breakthroughs in medicine, from the latest AIDS protease inhibitor drugs to menopausal treatments for women, have resulted from the responsible use of primate tests. The contention that primate testing is not necessary to find cures for inscrutable brain disorders such as schizophrenia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s does not wash. How do individual neurons influence behaviour? Which clumps of DNA are wired to which others? Scans, petri dishes and computer modelling are too crude. As distressing as it may seem, if you want answers and cures, you have to examine brain function.

Animal rights extremists are eager to tar scientists as heartless monsters. That’s far from the truth. Even electrode implantation, which can look gruesome, causes little pain; humans with Parkinson’s readily accept such treatments. But in the world of activist hysteria, dirt sticks. Vigilante terror campaign of animal rights lunatics has cowed the voice of reason.

It is discouraging that not one ethical investment leader has publicly rejected this deeply reactionary activism to support critically necessary scientific animal research. Yes, that might entail alienating some of its hardcore base. But that’s the price of leadership and ethics. Instead, many are commercialising the issue under the guise of good intentions. That’s cowardly and opportunistic – and very revealing about social investing’s moral compass.

Jon Entine is scholar-in-residence at Miami University (Ohio) and adjunct fellow with the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, DC. Jon is also an award-winning freelance journalist.

Copyright 1999–2011 Jon Entine all rights reserved