Editorial: An unnecessary evil

Using animals to test the safety of new medicines and other products intended for human consumption has always raised an important ethical question. Does the fact that humans place more value on the lives of people than the lives of non-humans justify subjecting animals to painful and often lethal treatment?

When the products being investigated are designed to save or significantly enhance human lives, the answer must be yes. When they have no benefit to the advancement or protection of humanity, the answer must surely be no.

Party pills, which have no purpose other than to get users bombed out of their brains, unquestionably fall into the latter category.

Associate Health Minister Peter Dunne deserves praise for his efforts to bring some sanity to the availability of so-called legal highs in New Zealand.

For years, the substances were sold without formal restrictions, despite there being no knowledge about the potential risk many of them posed and significant evidence that some of them could be downright dangerous if taken in large doses or for prolonged periods.

Mr Dunne is overseeing a law change that will subject the substances to the same regime as pharmaceuticals, which must undergo rigorous testing to show they are safe before they can be sold.

The problem is that before legal highs can be approved for humans, Mr Dunne says they will almost certainly have to be tested on animals.

Reluctant to see that occur, he will instruct the Health Ministry to devise a regime in which experimentation on animals is avoided "wherever possible". He has also ruled out controversial - and frankly pointless - tests in which doses of drugs submitted for approval would be fed to rats and dogs and increased till half the test group dies.

His commitment to curb the use of animal testing for legal highs is welcome, but he needs to go further. There is no reason for any animal testing for designer drugs, and to allow it would fail to meet the benchmark by which society sanctions the limited use of vivisection.

As a necessary evil, testing on animals has no moral authority unless it is underpinned by the principle of the greater good. It is generally accepted that deliberately infecting animals with fatal diseases, administering doses of experimental pharmaceuticals or subjecting creatures to procedures that cause discomfort, pain or death is ethically defensible only provided the harm is minimised as much as possible and the purpose is to save human lives.

It cannot be justified if the purpose of the products in question is merely to alter people's conscious states.

Instead of merely restricting the use of animal testing for party pills and other mind-altering substances, Mr Dunne should forbid it altogether.

These drugs have no benefit to humankind. If those who wish to peddle them cannot prove they are safe without subjecting animals to discomfort, pain or death then they should be prevented from selling them.

New Zealand would certainly not be any worse off if manufacturers are unable to meet that test.

The Dominion Post