John C. Kirk (johnckirk) wrote,
John C. Kirk

Unintended consequences

Disclaimer: As with all my blog posts, I am only representing my own views here. I'm not speaking on behalf of any of my employers (past, present, or future).

Every so often, I see people protesting against animal testing; this particularly applies to the pharmaceutical industry, where new drugs (medicines) are tested on animals before they're tested on humans. Some people have been quite militant about this, e.g. SHAC campaigned against Huntingdon Life Sciences for 15 years. Other people create petitions, e.g. "Make animal testing in all its forms illegal across the UK" (Jan 2016).

I've been vegetarian since 1992, primarily because I'm concerned about animal welfare, so I do sympathise with the campaigners on this. However, I'm not sure that they've really thought through the implications.

Quoting from The Teenage Vegetarian Survival Guide (p144):

  • Penicillin kills hamsters and guinea pigs but frequently saves human lives;

  • Morphine sedates humans but causes frenzied behaviour in cats;

  • Chloroform, an anaesthetic for humans, kills dogs;

  • Aspirin causes deformities in dogs, cats and rats - but not in humans.

However, I've found a conflicting view here: Animal Rights Pseudoscience. I'm not a doctor, and I haven't studied this in any detail, but that website seems more convincing (partly because it cites its sources). So, for now I'll just treat this as a moral argument.

Looking back at World War 2, the Nazis did various medical experiments on prisoners, e.g. seeing how long someone could survive in cold water before they died of hypothermia. After the war, various countries got together and said (paraphrased): "This was fundamentally wrong, and we must all make sure that it never happens again." That resulted in the Nuremberg Code. In particular, people have to volunteer for trials (with informed consent) rather than being coerced into it, and "It should be based on previous knowledge (like, an expectation derived from animal experiments) that justifies the experiment." Quoting from a BBC article: "UK law both requires and regulates experiments on animals. Any new drug must be tested on at least two different species of live mammal, one of which must be a large non-rodent."

So, suppose that we banned animal testing in the UK. What would happen next? Here are the options that I can see:

  • We outsource it, similar to call centres. We'd still continue to do human trials in the UK like we do now, but we'd get a company in Mumbai (or wherever) to do the animal tests. So, the same number of animals would still be involved in tests, but they wouldn't be British animals.

  • We withdraw from the Nuremberg Code, and say that it's ok to do human trials without animal trials. Maybe the code is too much of a blunt instrument, and we'd be better off with more nuance. However, I've already heard people ask: "Why don't we just test new drugs on all the paedos we've got locked up in prison?" So, I'm concerned about repealing any of the anti-Nazi laws.

  • We scrap trials altogether, and jump straight to prescribing untested drugs. This sounds ludicrous, but I've seen people suggesting it, e.g. after the "elephant man" trial that went wrong in 2006.

  • We stop developing any new medicines. So, if you were hoping for a new cancer treatment or an Ebola vaccine, too bad; we're stuck with what we've already got.

Some people might be happy with any of the options above, on the basis that animal testing is inherently wrong and so anything else would be an improvement. Other people might have a preference for one option over another. If Parliament did decide to change UK legislation and ban animal tests, I would certainly expect them to have a clear plan for what happens next, rather than just saying "We'll sort out the details later." This leads me on to Brexit.

Just to recap, there was a referendum in June 2016, asking whether Britain should leave the European Union (EU). Unlike a general election, this wasn't binding; it was effectively a giant opinion poll. 52% of voters (37% of the electorate) said that they wanted to leave, and our new Prime Minister (Theresa May) has said that this will happen. She has also said that "Brexit means Brexit", which isn't very informative. So, what happens next? Here are a few possibilities:

  • The Norwegian model. This means that we get the same trade deals, and we're bound by the same laws, but we don't get to vote on those laws.

  • The Swiss model. This means that we get most of the trade deals, but we're not bound by EU law.

  • "Hard Brexit". This means that we leave the common market completely and go via the World Trade Organisation instead; we're also not bound by EU law.

Business Insider have a longer list of options, with more detail about each. It's worth noting that Norway and Switzerland are both part of the Schengen Zone: that means that you can travel across Europe without needing to show your passport when you cross the border. If the UK joined the Schengen Zone, anyone would be able to travel through the Channel Tunnel without needing a passport; that includes all the refugees at Calais.

The Daily Mail had a front page headline today: "Damn the unpatriotic Bremoaners and their plot to subvert the will of the British people". Quoting from that editorial: "The entirely fatuous argument [..] is that the public did not vote to quit the single market on June 23: they voted only to leave the EU." I disagree, i.e. I think it's a legitimate argument. I'm sure that some people wanted to leave the common market, but I don't think we can infer that it applies to all the people who voted "Leave". After all, the question on the ballot paper was simply: "Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?"

According to various news sites (e.g. The Independent), the general consensus seems to be that older people mostly voted "leave" and younger people mostly voted "remain". (That said, the actual ballot was secret, so this is just extrapolating from opinion polls.) I know a few people in their 60s and 70s who voted "Leave", and they all said that their key concern was sovereignty. There was a similar referendum in 1975, when Britain chose to join the European Economic Community (EEC). As the name suggests, this was all about trade agreements, or at least that's how it was presented to the electorate at the time. In 1991, the Maastricht treaty replaced the EC with the EU; the BBC have a timeline with more detail. The point is that some people felt betrayed: they'd signed up for one thing, and then it was changed into something else.

Coming back to the theme of testing new drugs, one example of EU legislation was the Clinical Trials Directive; this had a big impact on the number of (human) trials in the UK. The Guardian are pretty pro-EU, but when they wrote about this, the best they could say was (paraphrased) "Ok, version 1 had problems. Mistakes were made. Still, when version 2 comes out next year, it will be great!" Another example of EU legislation is the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), which could be quite tricky to implement. However, it's worth noting that the EU GDPR will still apply to UK companies even after Brexit, if you're storing any data about EU citizens (e.g. customers or employees).

So, if you like the idea of the common market but you don't like being bound by EU law, the Swiss model would be the best option. On the other hand, if you just want to get rid of all the foreigners and you don't care about the common market, hard Brexit would be better for you.

Then there was the slogan on the Brexit campaign bus: "We send the EU £350 million a week. Let's fund our NHS instead." I think that figure has been quite thoroughly debunked by now, e.g. by the BBC. Also, in the wake of the referendum, various pro-Leave campaigners have distanced themselves from the pledge: Nigel Farage said that it was a mistake (Telegraph) and Iain Duncan-Smith said that it was never a commitment (Huffington Post). Still, I think it's plausible that some people took this at face value. Others may think that EU membership is still too expensive, even if the "£350 million" claim was exaggerated. So, leaving the EU would then be similar to cancelling your Sky subscription, if you don't feel that you're getting value for money. However, those people may not have any strong feelings about the common market or EU legislation, so I don't think we can automatically assume that they'd all support hard Brexit.

I think the referendum result would have been more meaningful if it had been multiple choice. (Personally I voted "Remain", but I'm not just saying this in the hope that it would have split the "Leave" vote; at the previous referendum, I voted in favour of AV, and that could have been used here.) However, it's too late for that now. Instead, I definitely think that MPs should be able to vote on which type of Brexit we go for, rather than the Prime Minister making that decision unilaterally. If nothing else, it will hold them accountable: if they vote for a particular plan and it goes disastrously wrong, they'll lose votes at the next general election. On the other hand, if there's no vote in Parliament then they can legitimately shrug their shoulders and say "Nothing to do with me".

Sadly, this decision is out of my hands. However, I think it's something that should concern everyone, whichever way you voted in the referendum.
Tags: politics

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