"All animals are equal," is the sixth commandment of animalism in George Orwell's Animal Farm.

Animal rights activists want to bring this bit of fiction to fruition, lumping lab rats and other animals in with humans as deserving of equal treatment. And they threaten medical research in the process. 

"A rat is a pig is a dog is a boy," says Ingrid Newkirk, co-founder of the largest animal rights activist group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals. 

There's no question that's fringe thinking. But it's thinking that recently gained a dangerous toehold in federal regulation. 

In 1966, the U.S. Department of Agriculture was given authority under the Animal Welfare Act to issue rules governing the care of research animals. Rats, mice and birds were not covered by the law. 

In 1998, the Alternatives Research and Development Foundation sued the USDA, claiming that exemption was "arbitrary and capricious" in excluding rats, mice and birds from the regulations. 

Rather than go to court, the USDA capitulated over the objections of numerous biomedical organizations, universities and scientists. The USDA agreed to amend the definition of "animal" for purpose of the animal welfare rules. Fortunately, Congress intervened — temporarily, anyway. 

The fiscal year 2001 Agricultural Appropriations Act prohibits the USDA from spending any money to implement the agreement with the ARDF. But the prohibition only applies for fiscal year 2001. For fiscal year 2002 and beyond, all bets are off. 

The biomedical research community opposes including rats, mice and birds under Animal Welfare Act regulation because, they say, research laboratories already are subject to guidelines on the humane care and use of laboratory animals issued by the U.S. Public Health Service. 

More regulations would only burden researchers with unnecessary, time-consuming and expensive administrative requirements, says Estelle Fishbein, general counsel of the Johns Hopkins University in a commentary in this week's Journal of the American Medical Association

This is sound reasoning, certainly. But it's a timid and inadequate defense of the use laboratory animals in medical research. 

First of all, the ARDF is not the slightest bit interested in "more humane" treatment of laboratory animals. The group flatly opposes all use of laboratory animals in medical research. 

While subjecting rats and mice the vast majority of laboratory animals used in medical research to strict federal regulation does not achieve the ARDF's goal, it represents an incremental step toward making the use of laboratory animals impractical. 

Animal research may make some uneasy. But it's not done without good reason. Laboratory animals provide living systems for medical researchers to test out their ideas. Without laboratory animals, human beings would be the guinea pigs for medical researchers. 

Animal research has a tremendous track record, playing a key role in research resulting in the prevention and treatment of many diseases, including rabies, small pox, anthrax, rickets, tetanus, arthritis, diphtheria, whooping cough, cancer, rubella, measles and AIDS. 

The development of cardiac catheterization, insulin, blood anticoagulants, open heart surgery, cardiac pacemakers, tranquilizers, modern anesthesia, laproscopic surgery and many other advances would have been impossible without animal research. 

The ARDF has its own recommendations for medical learning and research. It wants surgery taught using three-dimensional, computer-assisted techniques instead of living beings. The ARDF wants AIDS vaccines to be tested in vitro in test tubes and petri dishes. 

No AIDS treatment to date has been developed without animal testing. Nobel laureate Joseph E. Murray, M.D. says, "Americans must decide whether they support animal research or animal rights... We can't let a potential treatment for AIDS fall victim to their specious rhetoric." 

"Research with laboratory animals is required to bring the benefits of advances in molecular genetics, neuroscience and other highly productive fields to clinical application through the study of intact organisms," says Nobel laureate Harold Varmus. 

But why let life-saving progress get in the way of mindless activism? 

Animal rights activists want animals treated as equals and we wouldn't eat, wear or experiment on other humans, so why would we do so on animals? Perhaps in some ways we all are "animals." But let's not forget the ultimate commandment of Animalism, "Some animals are more equal than others" especially when it comes to medical research. 

— Steven Milloy is a biostatistician, lawyer and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and publisher of Junkscience.com.