Ask the average individual what he thinks about animal testing and you’d probably expect a fairly standardized response: Something along the lines of, “it may not be ideal, but it is necessary”. Many people see such testing as a necessary evil, justified by the advances made in modern healthcare. Perhaps.

The question that is all too often missing when we consider such “necessary evils” concerns where we draw the line, and how that line is policed. With regards to the former, animal rights groups have regularly concentrated on the controversial practice (common to Oxford University laboratories) of vivisection. It doesn’t take much research to understand why.

Vivisection, for those unlearned in the field of animal testing, is “the action or practice of performing dissection, or other painful experiment, upon living animals as a method of physiological or pathological study”.

Its brutality is perhaps better expressed in the sobering accounts of animal rights groups such as Animal Aid, who recollect primates having metal coils inserted into their skulls, cats having their eyelids sewn together, and dogs having ribs removed and blood vessels closed up during heart experiments.

The cruelty implied by such experiments suggests the need for clear and police-able limits to animal testing, and in particular, research vivisection.

Whether the limits that currently exist are satisfactory is, at best, questionable. Certainly the quantity of such experiments seems excessively large, with animal rights group SPEAK estimating that the opening of Oxford University’s new vivisection laboratory 3 years ago will mean that 150,000 animals will be experimented on annually.

If these figures are even close to accurate, they surely beg the question of whether the animal welfare costs of such experiments are being appropriately internalized.

Evidence in this field does not make for pleasant reading. A 2003 study by Dr William F. Crowley Jr. of the Harvard Medical School found that, in a total of 25,000 articles surveyed featuring animal testing, only about 2% contained some claim to future applicability.

Too frequently, the relevance of scientists’ findings does not justify the cruelty that is implied by their methods. This is not lost on critics of animal testing, who cite case studies of Parkinson’s disease being tested on primates upon whom the disease has a significantly different effect as to that evidenced in humans.

Writing from a non-medical perspective, the chances of any important learning occurring through such research appear overly-optimistic given the suffering such experiments inflict.

The failures in the existing use of animal testing in scientific research suggest, at the very least, the need for greater accountability in the application of vivisection techniques.

The extensive animal welfare costs of such analyses imply that we should not permit gross failures, of the like that characterize some experiments. Particularly striking in this respect is the study in which 30% of the tested animals died during the vivisection process, only for the scientists responsible to conclude that their small sample size obscured any conclusive findings.

Accountability is fully consistent with animal testing, provided that the results from such tests can be shown to have social relevance. Thus even for those who advocate animal testing as a “necessary evil”, the quest for greater accountability is something that should be strived for, insofar as it prevents animal suffering where its contribution to overall scientific understanding is negligible.

The vast amounts of evidence collected by animal-rights groups of seemingly pointless brutality makes calls for greater accountability – and the increased restraint that such accountability would imply – a necessity.    

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