Animal research

Prohibitions and borders: the Swiss referendum on animal research – Parlons Recherche

February 11thand 2022
Jeremy D. Bailoo, Allyson J. Bennett, Amanda Dettmer, Justin Varholick, and Sangy Panicker

Switzerland is, for the fourth time, about to vote on a ban on animal testing. The previous three votes reflected a majority opposed to the initiative: 1985 (70% against), 1992 (56% against) and 1993 (72% against).

The Swiss are able to call the vote because they participate in what is called direct democracy where citizens and/or residents decide political initiatives without the use of legislative representatives as proxies. In this case, one of the three referendum options called the popular initiative was used. Opponents of animal research have presented an initiative calling for an end to all human and animal experimentation and a ban on imports of products developed using such methods. The submission took place on March 18, 2019 and is subject to a vote on February 13, 2022.

The Swiss National Science Foundation opposes this initiative

What does it mean?

Switzerland has some of the strictest animal welfare laws in the world. However, it would be misleading to equate the term strict with better. Consider that Switzerland also has strict electoral laws, with women gaining the right to vote in 1971; ~50 years ago! (And, for reference, decades after other countries, including nearly 80 years after New Zealand and 30 years after the United States.)

In both examples, strict clearly does not mean better but it is more appropriate to define it as restrictive. And, in both cases, detrimental to the communities affected by the restriction. The same argument with respect to banning animal testing can be made here, the proposed ban not being synonymous with ‘better’, but rather ‘restrictive’.

For Switzerland, this would mean that the country would be cut off from global scientific advances and medical progress, with significant consequences for the health of humans and other animals. For example, if this vote had passed at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in January 2020, Switzerland would be exempt from receiving the life-saving vaccines that have been developed as a result of decades of animal research. Similarly, the vote could mean that therapeutics used to treat animals in other settings, such as on farms and via pet veterinary care, would also be banned.

Such restrictions adopted in one country may also extend to other countries. Take for example France’s burqa ban in 2011, which further marginalized Muslims. Switzerland, the Netherlands, Sri Lanka, Belgium, China, Austria and Bulgaria followed. Freedom of religion and belief is guaranteed by Article 18 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) and by the United Nations Human Rights Committee, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of religion or belief and the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). all called the ban discriminatory and inconsistent with international law, but the ban persists.

Likely results?

Unsurprisingly, the Swiss National Science Foundation as well as the Swiss Federal Council and Parliament are both opposed to this popular initiative, and like the three previous votes, this initiative is doomed to failure.

Translated from here.

Importantly, and arguably, the dissent of the Swiss government as well as the leading group of Swiss scientific experts to this grassroots initiative, highlights the necessary role of increased transparency and advocacy that is needed in Switzerland to highlight the role vital role that animal research plays in our daily lives.

Why is this important?

At first glance, it is unclear whether this popular initiative affects anyone who is not Swiss. However, given the unwarranted perception that strict animal welfare laws equate to “better,” one can easily imagine how other countries might pursue similar programs. if this initiative passes.

Ultimately, we as scientists as well as the institutions we work for can and must do better to educate the public about the value and benefits of animal research. At the same time, we can and must improve the welfare of animals used in research, insofar as this reconciles scientific objectives with the use of these animals. Such oversight and regulatory systems are already in place (e.g. standards for animal care, external oversight, animal use protocols and review, harm-benefit and risk-benefit analyses, consideration of alternatives to animal use, etc.), and they will continue to be improved as new information becomes available.