Tissue donation: a proactive way to help save human and animal lives

Human tissueWe were recently asked how to go about leaving your body to medical science, and since this is a question often raised by those wanting to do something practical to help reduce reliance on animal subjects, it’s worth summarising the available information here.

There are various ways in which you can donate part or all of your body for the benefit of medical research.

Surplus tissues removed during surgery can be stored in hospital biobanks if you let the surgeon or nurse know in advance.

Organ donations save thousands of lives each year, but if your organs are unsuitable for transplant they can still play a valuable role in research.

Brain banks need both diseased and healthy brains to study Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurodegenerative diseases peculiar to humans.

Whole bodies are always needed by medical schools, whether for research purposes or to teach anatomy and surgical techniques. Under the Human Tissue Act 2004, consent for this must be given prior to death. A consent form can be obtained from your nearest medical school and a copy should be kept with your will. You should also inform your family, close friends and GP that you wish to donate your body. The medical school will arrange a cremation or burial, which the family may wish to attend, although this may not be for up to a year after the donation has taken place. Many medical schools also organise annual services of remembrance in order to recognise and thank donors and their families.

Further information, including contact details for medical schools throughout the UK, is available from the Human Tissue Authority website. Two inspirational stories about body donation can be read here and here.

Our thanks to Safer Medicines for these references.

The Brown Dog Statues

Near the north-west corner of Battersea Park in London, to the left of what they call DSC04730the Old English Garden, a path winds through a sort of woodland. Some way along it, there’s a Portland-stone pedestal, with a sculpture of a terrier dog on it – a very good sculpture, I would say, in the naturalistic manner.

In one sense, this is a memorial to a memorial. The original Brown Dog statue, quite a lot more imposing in scale and style, was put up in a very public location nearby in 1906. It commemorated a particular dog that had been used in experiments or demonstrations over a period of some weeks in the Physiology Department of University College, London – also the 232 other dogs vivisected in the same place over the previous year. The present statue preserves the whole text of the original dedication, which is vehement in a way quite uncommon on monuments and ends with this question: “Men and women of England, how long shall these Things be?”

That’s not a simple future tense, you’ll notice, asking us to hazard a guess. The word “shall” here implies ‘must’ or ‘ought’, as in the famous phrase of defiance “They shall not pass” (i.e. we won’t allow them to). It asks how long these things are going to be permitted to happen. It’s a political verb, and this was a political statue. Accordingly it became the site of fierce political dispute, principally between the almost exclusively male medical establishment and an anti-vivisection coalition of South London working people, feminists, and humanitarians. Physical attacks on the statue were made by gangs of medical students, culminating in the ‘Brown Dog Riots’ late in 1907. A permanent police guard had to be mounted at the statue. Then in 1909 there was a change of political control in the local authority. The new Conservative administration had the monument removed and destroyed.

There was much more to the Brown Dog affair than these street disturbances. The lecture at which the dog had been re-vivisected (an offence under the 1876 Cruelty to Animals Act) was attended by two female medical students who were keeping a diary of all that they saw. This diary was published in 1903 as The Shambles of Science. The chapter about the lecture was titled ‘Fun’, for the authors claimed that there was joking and laughter during the demonstration. The book led on to a libel action, where the courts came to the rescue of the UCL physiologist. More importantly, the controversy prompted a second Royal Commission on Vivisection, appointed in 1906, although not much came out of that. All these things have been very fully written about.[1]

Back to the present-day statue. This was put up in 1985, as one of the last progressivist actions the former Greater London Council was able to sponsor before Margaret Thatcher abolished it. The sculptor was Nicola Hicks. As I’ve mentioned, it’s a naturalistic work, a study in dog behaviour, whereas the former statue was more formal, monumental in fact, showing the dog high up and self-sufficiently heroic. It has been suggested that the change is for the worse, softening the message.[2] Certainly the modern statue is sequestered and unassertive, but it’s very eloquent in its own way. The dog’s tail curls a little way upward, its body is bent round self-deprecatingly, its head ducks forward to show submission: all these seem to be efforts to propitiate someone, but the dog’s wide and weary eyes suggest that it doesn’t expect to succeed. In fact its posture recalls all those reports of dogs remaining wretchedly biddable and anxious to please under the most ruthless treatment in the laboratory. As the notorious Professor Rutherford of Edinburgh told the 1875 Cardwell Commission, “It is wonderful what one may do to a sheepdog without the animal’s making any commotion.”

The modern inscription brings the story up to date for 1985. It records that 3,497,335 experiments had been performed on live animals in the previous year, and lists some of the “horrifyingly cruel” things that had been done to them. The previous monument, it says, “represented the revulsion of the people of London to vivisection”, and this new one “is dedicated to the continuing struggle to end these practices”.

 

[1] See particularly Coral Lansbury, The Old Brown Dog: Women, Workers, and Vivisection in Edwardian England (Wisconsin 1985).

[2] In ‘An Exploration of the Sculptures of Greyfriars Bobby, Edinburgh, Scotland, and the Brown Dog, Battersea, South London, England’, by Hilda Kean, in Society and Animals, Dec. 2003 (accessible online)

He can’t be a party leader, he believes in what he says …

There is a media storm over the leadership battle for the Labour Party. Against all the odds Jeremy Corbyn is currently the most popular candidate. It’s being claimed that he was only nominated to ensure that “the loony left” was represented, and now there are endless warnings that if he’s successful he will make Labour unelectable. However, some of the most extreme comments about Corbyn simply highlight the fact that he genuinely believes in a whole set of principles. It’s noteworthy that every media report mentions the fact that he’s a vegetarian. And even worse than that, he really is. The Daily Mail referred to him as “a strict vegetarian”, but they probably don’t actually know the difference between “a vegetarian” (you don’t eat any meat or fish) and “a strict vegetarian” (you don’t eat any meat or fish). The confusion for tabloid hacks is probably caused by “celebrity vegetarians” like Gwyneth Paltrow (she claims to be veggie but isn’t).

And when he was interviewed for The Guardian a few years ago, these ridiculous comments appear: “Our meeting was delayed for a few minutes by an amicable disagreement at the hot food counter in the Strangers’ Cafe in the House of Commons. Corbyn was refusing a plate of spaghetti because it was served bolognese. He insisted on being given a dull looking vegetable goulash instead. ‘I don’t eat meat,’ he explained. He takes his vegetarianism, like all his other beliefs, very seriously.”

Please note that the disagreement was “amicable”; instead of him shouting and screaming as most vegetarians obviously would. Also, that he was “given a dull looking vegetable goulash instead”. Of course this dish was “dull looking”, everybody knows that veggie food is always dull. And finally, “he takes his vegetarianism, like all his other beliefs, very seriously”. What? That’s outrageous, I don’t want somebody like this leading the Labour Party. Can you imagine what he might say about the meat industry, the badger cull, fish farming, and vivisection?

After all, this is the MP who led the deputation to No. 10 Downing Street in 2006 to hand in The Primate Nations (the report which showed why we shouldn’t be using non-human primates in experiments); who won the Gandhi Foundation’s International Peace Prize in 2013 for his work for social justice and non-violence, including non-violence against animals; who has signed 13 of the 14 Early Day Motions currently putting the case for animals before the House of Commons; who in fact has backed campaigns for animals all through his parliamentary career.

OK, I accept the fact that it will be very difficult for Labour to win the next election if they adopt a series of left wing policies under Corbyn’s potential leadership. However, the Labour Party is currently “unelectable” because of the horrendous legacy of Tony Blair. It’s deeply ironic that Blair has publicly stated his objection to Corbyn. Could there be a greater difference between these two politicians? The former is a Messianic nutcase; guilty of a long list of heinous crimes against humanity. He always promoted himself as “a practising Christian”, and after leaving office he converted to Catholicism (which is enough to have him carted off in a strait jacket).

Have we really reached such a dire level in British politics that a man with “serious beliefs” based on fairness and compassion is considered a bad choice as a party leader? Maybe Corbyn is doing so well because he represents something that has been so lacking within our political structure? He might not have enough broad appeal to win a general election, but he’s still a fantastic breath of fresh air. And it’s just wonderful to dream about the possibility of a vegetarian Prime Minister.

 

The Complete Vivisector

Out of the recent report from the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics[1] emerges a rounded portrait of the vivisector: the kinds of work he (or she) does, the arguments he and his apologists use to justify and privilege it, the things he has done when he didn’t know he was being watched, the language he uses to distance and objectify the animals, the laws and regulations which seem to inhibit but in fact protect him, and all the institutions which for one reason or another have an interest in his longevity, or think they do. And of course the 15 million or so animals every year who have to share the picture with him.

It’s not an impartial portrait, but then the subject of the report is the ethics of what he does, and the vivisector is really a “pre-ethical” character – so the report argues. The assumption about animals on which vivisection is founded – that their lives are ours to use as we will, with such welfare constraints as we think right – has been progressively discredited ever since Richard Ryder coined the word ‘speciesism’ for it. It was never a moral position. It was always what the pioneering vivisector Claude Bernard triumphantly said it was: a self-serving induration to the cries of other creatures – whether the “self” is the scientist or his species-client. Few of its apologists have liked to be as candid as Bernard, however, and the OCAE report shows how weak their rationalisations have therefore been. The 2006 Weatherall Report’s absurd “hospital fire thought experiment” is a memorable instance – a pretentious and confused bit of thinking, with the give-away facetiousness which speciesists habitually fall into when required to talk seriously about animals.[2]

In the absence of ethical support, then, what has kept vivisection publicly respectable is the “normalising” mentioned in the report’s title: all the shorings-up which it gets from the law, big business, the media and so on, but above all from the prestige of modern science. Somewhere in a 16th century drama by Sir David Lyndsay called Satyre of the Thrie Estaitis, a priest answers the charges being brought against his Church (then an institution with prestige of the sort science has now) by saying “But if it was wrong, we wouldn’t be doing it!” It’s a fine and convincing, or at least coercive, argument inside a profession, and outside it too, if the profession has authority there. In the case of vivisection, the OCAE report demolishes it.

The style of the report is not as pugnacious or ad hominem as all this may suggest. Its authors prefer, for instance, the term ‘animal experimentation’ to the more graphic ‘vivisection’. They deal almost exclusively with the UK scene, where the practice is at its most strictly regulated (which is not to say that the regulations are strictly enforced); it can therefore be supposed to represent vivisection at its most defensible. The report even responds patiently to such ancient knock-outs as ‘Why should a meat-eating society bother about the far fewer animals in laboratories?’ and ‘Didn’t the Nazis prohibit animal research?’

The OCAE report was commissioned by Cruelty Free International (formerly the BUAV). Two such institutions would not be expected to give a friendly account of the practice, but this is a fully researched and referenced piece of work, well-argued and also very well-written. It relates vivisection to all the most recent ethical and scientific thought affecting (and subverting) it, and needs to be read by anyone who thinks the subject matters – even more so by those who don’t. It can be found on the OCAE web-site. If you haven’t time to read it all, read the summary at pages 70-72.

1] Normalising the Unthinkable: the Ethics of Animals in Research, a report by the Working Group of the Oxford Centre for Animal Ethics, edited by Andrew and Clare Linzey, 88pp, 2015 (available to read on the OCAE web-site).

[2] The subject of the Weatherall Report was the use of non-human primates in research. The OCAE report provides a thorough critique of its “thought experiment” at paras 6.40 – 6.47.