Banville attacks Science Faculty

Eminent Irish author John Banville has attacked Trinity College’s ‘vivisection’ policy in an emotive and strongly worded letter to The Irish Times last week.

Eminent Irish author John Banville has attacked Trinity College’s ‘vivisection’ policy in an emotive and strongly worded letter to The Irish Times last week. Banville describes how he was moved by a public demonstration by the ‘National Animal Rights Association’ (NARA), and felt compelled to speak out against “such brutal and unnecessary practices’”. Mr. Banville and a NARA spokeswoman asserted that Trinity ‘test on mice, rats, rabbits, and even, horses when they can. Most of it is just for medical students to get experience.’ They stated that animal testing is preferred as it is the ‘cheapest’ and ‘most convenient’ option available.

Professor Veronica Campbell of Trinity’s School of Medicine replied to Mr Banville in a letter to the Irish Times. She began, “I reject the accusation by John Banville (October 3rd) that medical students at Trinity College engage in animal vivisection as part of their studies. This is false and misinforms your readers about undergraduate medical training in this institution”. She continued by outlining the ‘most stringent of guidelines’ under which animal experimentation is carried out. “Experiments on surgically anaesthetised animals are conducted by experienced, licensed researchers who wish to understand disease processes” according to Professor Campbell.

One Trinity spokeswoman refuted NARA’s claim that vivisection is merely the ‘cheapest’ option saying “non-animal alternatives did not require the same level of background support, and as such are considerably cheaper and researchers will choose these if they possibly can”. Mr. Banville insisted that the ‘unendurable agony’ caused to the animals in question, renders the whole process, regardless of the details, as ‘barbaric’.

Vivisection is a heavily regulated area of science. All animal research must be carried out in a Department of Health registered premises complying with standards laid down by a Council of Europe convention. A spokeswoman for Trinity College said, “this requires that animals are kept in purpose-built climate-controlled buildings with space allocated to them as defined in statute. The maintenance of these units is done by qualified animal care technicians whose sole function is to look after the welfare of the animals. This is all overseen by a veterinary director.”

Such strong criticism from one of Ireland’s most celebrated authors has attracted much attention to the ‘vivisection’ debate. For over a century, ‘animal-testing’ has suffered a long and turbulent history. The scientific, ethical and philosophical questions that arise have continually been the subject for heated discussion.

In her defence of Trinity’s medical department, Professor Campbell stated, ‘The public ought to be reminded that diabetes was a life-threatening condition until animal experiments led to the discovery that this disease could be treated successfully with pancreatic extracts containing insulin.’ Since the start of the twentieth century there have been other similar breakthroughs stemming from animal research. At the start of the century, doctors stopped using cocaine as the standard anasethetic when animal testing showed it carried considerable health risks. Similarly, in the 1940s a ‘whooping cough’ vaccine, kidney dialysis machine and the ‘heart-lung machine’ used during open-heart surgery were developed. The following decade, the polio vaccine, hip replacements, heart transplants and measles treatments were introduced. In the latter half of the century, Meningitis, Hepatitis and Malaria vaccines along with medical advances to support premature babies, drugs for mental illness, breast and prostrate cancer arose from animal research.

Professor Campbell finished, ‘The value of animal experimentation in the development of new strategies for disease circumvention is unequivocal. Although alternatives to animal studies have certain value, no emergent property of a complex living system (e.g. high blood pressure) can be studied exclusively in a dish and the consequence of disease and the efficacy of experimental therapies on a whole organism must be considered before any advances can translate into improvements in patient care.’