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Animals (More4) - Dr Simon Festing and John Curtin

We took your questions in a fascinating online debate between Dr Simon Festing (Head of the Research Defence Society) and John Curtin (animal rights activist).

Chat Ed : Good evening everyone and thanks for joining us for our live online debate about animal rights. We’ll be chatting with Dr Simon Festing – Head of the Research Defence Society and John Curtin - animal activist. We’ll be getting their opposing viewpoints on the questions YOU ask. Good evening to both of you…

Dr Simon Festing : Hello everyone. I'm Dr Simon Festing - a medical doctor previously, but now Head of the Research Defence Society, which explains why we use animals in medical research.

John Curtin : Hello there, I've just watched the programme and I've been involved in the Animal Liberation Movement for over 20 years and I’m proud to belong to this movement. I think that vivisection is morally and scientifically bankrupt.

NickyB : Hi there can you both tell us about your jobs and what your daily routines consist of?

John Curtin : Being involved in the Animal Liberation Movement encompasses so many different roles. I do animal rescue work at sanctuaries and general campaigning. I'm not involved in illegal activities anymore, on the programme I was talking retrospectively about activities I used to be involved in.

Dr Simon Festing : I spend much of my time with the scientific community, for example, at Universities and medical research charities, discussing scientific advances and understanding why we need to use animals. The rest of my time is usually spent in debate at schools, student unions, and public meetings and in the media.

Razzer : How did you both get started in your current professions/ what was the one thing that made you feel passionate about your causes?

John Curtin : I had a ‘Road to Damascus’ experience… I was living in Ireland and my dog died in my arms and it was at that moment that things clicked for me and I realised that animals do feel pain and that they do matter. I felt ashamed that I had been brainwashed up until then.

Dr Simon Festing : I spent most of my career in the environmental movement e.g. as a wildlife campaigner for Friends of the Earth. It was when I saw the job advertised for medical research charities to explain why we use animals in research that I was compelled to take an interest in this area because I also have compassion for patients and for charities.

Gemma Nichols : Mr. Festing, If animal research is relevant to human health, why did the vice president of a major drug co. admit that the majority of drugs do not work in most people, and a leading medical journal report they are 4th major cause of death?

Dr Simon Festing : All modern medicines are tested in computers and cell cultures and animals and then in extensive human clinical trials. It is the purpose of the human clinical trials to work out if the medicines are safe and effective. It is completely illogical to blame the small portion of the research that goes on in animals at a much earlier stage for when some problem later arises which the human clinical trials did not detect.

John Curtin : Modern medicine has become a multi-billion pound industry where sadly the focus is on healthy profits rather than healthy people. I sincerely believe that animal experiments are conducted in order to fast-track potentially dangerous and toxic products on to the market, as is often the case.

Leo the Lion : John Curtin, given that the public abhors animal rights extremism and largely supports animal research, isn't what you and your followers do fundamentally undemocratic. Would you agree that it's fascism to try to bully and intimidate people into submission?

John Curtin : To me it is the vivisectors who are the terrorists. Martin Luther King , Gandhi and Mandela were all branded by society as terrorists by simply fighting for justice and standing up for the victims of bullying. Apart from one attack, that I know of, on Brian Cass, no vivisectors have actually been physically injured, yet 3 animal rights protestors have been killed and countless put in hospital.

Dr Simon Festing : Those of us who do medical research to save human lives also believe that what we do is justified. The difference here is that we don't seek to impose our views on people like John through violence and intimidation.

Bball : Evening to both of you. I just want to ask, with such opposed points of view, can this issue ever be resolved? Assume you can never WIN this (which is likely the case), is there any middle ground that could ever be acceptable to both sides?

Dr Simon Festing : Research scientists do not want to use animals if it could possibly be avoided and we are the ones who have been developing alternatives. In the last 4 years there have been 3 major independent enquiries into animal research all by independent committees. They have all agreed that we should work to reduce the use of animals wherever possible, however, we accept that it is difficult to have dialogue with those who demand the immediate abolition of animal research regardless of the consequences.

John Curtin : I will never compromise when it comes to torture I will never accept one single animal experiment. Millions of animals are tortured inside British laboratories and the fight will not stop until there are none.

Alex : Could John Curtin tell me if animal rights activists renounce the use of any drugs which have been developed using animal testing?

John Curtin : The problem is that all drugs are tested on animals. On the programme it stated that if there are no adverse side effects then you can proceed to clinical testing on animals - this is not true. If that were the case then we wouldn't be using drugs such as aspirin and penicillin. Aspirin kills cats and penicillin kills guinea pigs. When I'm sick I don't go to the vets. I want to rely on a human specialist.

Dr Simon Festing : It is a clear requirement in law that all medicines are tested on animals before going on to human clinical trials. These laws were developed by medical committees to protect the patient’s safety. The last time we gave a medicine to a large number of people without proper testing on animals was thalidomide and we don't want to go back to those dark ages.

John Curtin : Thalidomide is the classic case in question where they were caught out for being what they are - indefensible. It WAS tested for birth defects on animals. Being the clever business-people that they are they managed to turn the argument into "ah ha we need MORE animal testing". Thalidomide should have been the last animal testing for all time.

Dr Simon Festing : It is a categorical fact that it was NEVER tested in pregnant animals before being given to pregnant women. The same birth defects show up clearly in rabbits, rats and mice (the most common used animals in this sort of testing).

Skip : How realistic was the programme?

John Curtin : I was pleasantly surprised at some of the realism in it. Normally this area has been handled by the likes of The Bill, Bergerac and Casualty and I usually cringe. I thought it did a very good job actually. Although it lacked the graphic animal abuse and it didn't portray how gruesome animal experiments often are.

Dr Simon Festing : Overall I thought the film was helpful in allowing people to see what happens inside research centres. Inevitably there is more attention to the most emotive animals such as monkeys and dogs. We don't deny these animals are used but they are considerably less than 1% of all animals in research. There are many more fish used than dogs for example and I find it strange that we would go to work everyday to torture fish.

BazB : Regulatory requirements demand testing of new drugs in animals. Given this, why do animal rights protesters target industry rather than government?

John Curtin : There is a saying that animals have as much chance in politics as they have in the slaughterhouse. I have here a leaflet that was put through my door by Labour saying, ‘New Labour - New Life’ where Tony Blair promised to have a Royal Commission into vivisection... Where is that now? Another empty promise. We target businesses because the fundamental reason behind animal experiments is to make money, therefore business-people understand us when we cost them money.

Dr Simon Festing : Most animal research is carried out in Universities and much is funded by medical research charities who are concerned to find desperately needed cures for patients suffering from a huge range of diseases. The question is whether the animal rights groups will listen to the results of any enquiry because every one ever conducted anywhere in the world has always found that animal research does indeed have valuable medical benefits.

John Curtin : I would ask people to not believe either me or Dr Festing and check out the facts for yourself because his last answer is not true.

Dr Simon Festing : I agree. Firstly and most recently you should take a look at The Nuffield Council on Bioethics Report (2005), The Ethics of Research involving Animals. Secondly from 2003 The Animal Procedures Committee Report which is a review of cost-benefit assessment in the use of animals in research. And lastly The House of Lords Report, Animals in Scientific Procedures. And of course the recent adjudication by the Advertising Standards Authority, which is already on the More4 website timeline.

John Curtin : What about the recent survey of 500 GPs where 82% of them were concerned that animal data can be misleading when applied to humans?

Dr Simon Festing : Most anti-vivisection groups would agree that the data from any type of research can be misleading. We would agree with that poll of GPs, but we must point out that the polling company put out a statement strongly criticising the anti-vivisection groups for drawing conclusions from that study, which were not justified.

Primate : The pharmaceutical industry is about profit not philanthropy - Dr Festing do you agree?

Dr Simon Festing : Yes and the logical consequence of that is firstly that no one who wants to make a profit could do so from torturing animals or producing bad science. Since animal research is extremely expensive pharmaceutical companies have every incentive to develop and introduce alternatives at which they have been extremely successful.

John Curtin : If the pharmaceuticals cared about people how do they still try and charge the earth for their drugs in the developing world? They can make money from selling dangerous products as long as they are on the market for long enough (e.g. Vioxx)

Achar : John, you are clearly driven by your conscience. But other radical campaigners are, too. If your conscience is clear about damage caused to property in pursuit of a cause, would you accept the legitimacy of causing similar damage, if it was carried out by, say, anti-abortionists, radical Christians or Islamic Jihadists, who are also acting on deeply held beliefs?

John Curtin : I don't just agree with people acting on their beliefs, but I would ask people to believe that what underpins me is love and compassion. That may drive me to do things that other people disagree with. I want a gentler world, not a more violent world.

Dr Simon Festing : I don't see what this gentler world has to do with lobbing bricks through people's windows. The animal rights groups are acting as self-appointed judge, jury and executioner.

Chat Ed :We are out of time. Sorry to those of you who did not get a question asked, in our limited time we get far more questions that we can use, but I hope you enjoyed the chat whether you got a question asked or not. Thank you to both of you for coming along and chatting with us. And final words from our guests…

Dr Simon Festing : I would like to see the time when we can have a debate with people like John without the threat of intimidation and harassment hanging over us. I know that will be difficult and we must do what we believe is just and that is to develop life-saving medicines to prevent human suffering and save human lives.

John Curtin : If I thought that debating on its own would end vivisection then I would devote myself fully to that but action is needed to end it as well as debating. I too am interested in preventing human suffering and saving human lives but my circle goes to all creatures. The world will always be full of suffering but my dream is to live in one where deliberate suffering is condemned.

Dr Simon Festing leaves the room
John Curtin leaves the room