German scientists who experiment on laboratory animals can breathe a bit easier--for now. On 13 April Germany's lower house of parliament narrowly defeated an effort to amend the nation's constitution to guarantee animal welfare. Such an amendment could have led to court challenges of much of the country's lab-animal research.
The amendment, supported by the ruling coalition of Social Democrats and Greens, won a majority in the 669-member Bundestag. But it failed by 54 votes to garner the two-thirds margin necessary to alter the constitution, thanks to opposition from the center-right Christian Democrats. "It is frightening that what could have been a major disaster to science and research ... was only prevented by a single party," says Andreas Kreiter, a Bremen University neuroscientist whose brain research using macaques has been a high-profile target of animal-rights activists.
Germany already has one of Europe's toughest laws requiring researchers to treat animals humanely by providing adequate caging and food while minimizing suffering. The amendment would have tacked onto the constitution a one-sentence guarantee of animal rights with no allowances for lab animals. If the amendment had been adopted, Kreiter asserts, activists would have brought "a huge number of court trials" to halt experiments involving animals. This, he says, "would have, in effect, stopped biomedical research in Germany."
The close vote energized animal-rights leaders, who have vowed to make the Christian Democrats pay, politically, for their stance. Eisenhart von Loeper, who heads the animal-rights group Bundesverband der Tierversuchsgegner, says the battle is heating up in Germany's 16 states, half of which already have added animal-rights provisions to their own constitutions. (These have far less impact than would a national amendment.) Adds Wolfgang Apel, president of the Deutscher Tierschutzbund: "We are not giving up."