Published Online: October 8, 1997

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Weighing in on dissection

The controversy began with "frog girl."

In 1987, "frog girl," 15-year-old California student Jennifer Graham, gained both a nickname and national celebrity for refusing to dissect a frog in her biology class. She said the practice conflicted with her ethical beliefs.

Her science teacher, school principal, and, ultimately, the district's school board refused to provide Ms. Graham with an alternative assignment. But she gained sympathy in California and around the country after appearances on national news and talk shows.

The case prompted California lawmakers to pass legislation protecting students who were ethically opposed to dissection. The 1988 law was the first of its kind in the United States.

Several states have since followed California's lead. Laws requiring teachers to provide alternative assignments to students opposed to dissection have also been enacted in Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, Pennsylvania, and, most recently, Rhode Island, according to Jonathan Balcombe, the associate director for education for the Washington-based Humane Society of the United States. Illinois, Massachusetts, and New Jersey have been debating putting similar laws on the books, he said.

Without such laws, Mr. Balcombe said, students who refuse to participate in the dissection of animals--frogs, pigs, cats, rats, sharks, and cow and sheep organs are routinely used in classroom dissections--are subject to lowered grades from their teachers.

But many science teachers feel that there are few good alternatives to the real thing.

"Dissection can be a very important part of science, but we ask teachers to recognize that some students can't deal with it," said Cindy Workosky, a spokeswoman for the Arlington, Va.-based National Science Teachers Association. "We think it's important to leave the decision to the teacher."

Pat Davis, Ms. Graham's mother, runs the anti-dissection hot line for the Chicago-based National Anti-Vivisection Society. She said she takes more than 100 calls a week from distraught students.

"Our organization's immediate goal is to make dissection optional in this country," said Ms. Davis, who asserts that computer simulations and plastic models are as effective an instructional tool as animals or their parts--and less expensive.

--KERRY A. WHITE

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