Opting out of animal-based eductional experiments


Opting out of Animal Experiments

The issue of harmful animal experimentation in education is a controversial one, with strong views both in favour and against. The word 'harmful' is used here to describe animal use which involves physical or psychological harm, and includes killing before or after experiments.

OUSA-affiliated society Students for Ethical Science (SES) believes that

  1. such experiments are unnecessary, and
  2. the issue should be openly debated in all educational institutions which provide biology-/life science-related courses.

Information about alternatives and the permissibility of opting out are not provided by the Open University, despite recommendations in 1999 by EU advisory body the European Centre for the Validation of Alternative Methods (ECVAM) that

'...everyone involved in education and training, and especially lecturers and students, should have access to comprehensive information about alternatives',


'Students wishing to participate in exercises that use animals should be required to opt in, rather than the current opt-out system...'

The OU often DO permit opting-out, but they do not like to offer it automatically as they obviously do not want to encourage it. This is not unique to the OU, as is clear from a 1995 survey in the USA referred to in an article by Jonathan Balcombe of the Humane Society of the United States (HSUS). This found that ‘school boards and teachers frequently claim that their students are ‘offered’ alternatives. What this usually means is that while the student may be allowed to use alternatives, he or she is not informed about the choice and must request it.’

Below is a response from the OU’s Dean of Science, Dr Stephen Swithenby, in an e-mail dated 31st July 2001, to Vivien's statement that the OU had a secret policy of allowing opting-out:

My assertion that there was no secrecy was based on the notion that our policy on participation in relation to animal experiments was consistent with our wider policy on participation. We have an academic programme which is designed to achieve the outcomes of the course and we encourage full participation. Anybody who does not participate fully is likely to be disadvantaged. However, we recognise that full participation may be impossible for many reasons, including ethical objections. Because the scale of animal experimentation at Residential School is limited, it is possible to not participate and still be deemed to have participated satisfactorily overall. To this extent it is possible to 'opt out'.

At present we are not able to offer formal 'opt out' routes because this would require us to provide alternative learning experiences and we do not believe this is possible while still providing an academically acceptable programme.

As I have already remarked, we are at present re-evaluating our programmes. This includes a sharper analysis of the intended learning outcomes and the ways in which they are assessed. This may lead to further clarification in the demands we place on students


The lack of such a formal opt-out system means that most students are completely unaware that the option exists. This produces three undesirable outcomes:

  1. Compassionate potential vets, doctors and scientists are discouraged from studying biology.
  2. Those who obey reluctantly are often distressed and guilt-ridden afterwards.
  3. Those who comply can develop a less caring attitude towards animals.

Dr Swithenby’s claims are contradicted by many educational, scientific and medical professionals:

David O. Wiebers (MD and neurologist) states in a booklet produced by the HSUS: “From the perspective of a physician involved in clinical practice, education and research, I have come to the conclusion that killing and dissecting animals is not only unnecessary but also counterproductive in the training of physicians and scientists.” Michael W. Fox is quoted in the same booklet: “no valid educational system should seek, by coercion, conformity or tradition, to blunt students’ sensitivity and force them to engage in activities that are contrary to their beliefs.”

It seems strange that undergraduates, few of whom will need animal-tissue experimentation skills in their careers, cannot be provided with formal alternatives by the OU, when many veterinary schools, following pressure from students, are now being given such options automatically (e.g. Knight, 2000). After all, Dr Brownleader wrote to SES in 1992 “I vehemently believe that no animals are necessary in courses such as zoology, biochemistry, physiology and pharmacology”.

Thousands of humane alternatives exist, from computer simulations and videos to humanely sourced cadavers and student self-experimentation.

The Open University Students' Association (OUSA) has for many years passed conference motions advocating a similar approach, and continues to support such policies. For example, an early OUSA policy, B26.4, stated:

'This Association notes the University's assurances that no student's academic assessment will be adversely affected by their non-participation in animal experiments and urges the University to include a formal statement to that effect in future editions of the Student Handbook.' (1991 93M)

Seventeen years later, there is still no reference to the right to opt out, either in the OU's paper publications or on its website.

It therefore continues to fall to concerned students, graduates and staff to provide this information - vital for enabling students to make informed decisions in their course choices. We also have to make up for the university's failure to provide full information about its animal use.




 Balcombe, J. (1997) ‘Student/Teacher Conflict Regarding Animal Dissection’, The American Biology Teacher 59 No 1 pp. 22-5.

 ECVAM (1999) ‘Alternatives to the Use of Animals in Higher Education’, ECVAM, Ispra, Italy

 Humane Society of the United States (1996)Experts’ Statements on Dissection, Humane Society of the United States, Washington, USA

 Knight, A. (July 2000) Ethically-sourced Cadaver Surgery – A submission to Murdoch University’s Division of Veterinary & Biomedical Sciences, Perth, Australia