Campaign Opens New Front in Battle Over Dissection

February 20, 1991 17 min read

This spring, a leading animal-rights organization plans to launch a vigorous national campaign to pressure school boards and superintendents to remove animal dissection from science curricula, further fueling a debate that already is raging in many schools over the educational, moral, and ethical questions posed by the practice.

Sue Brebner, the education director for the Washington-based People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, said that her organization will distribute to its “grassroots network” of local animal-rights groups a set of materials containing arguments against, and describing alternatives to, dissection.

The group is urging animal-rights advocates to lobby principals, superintendents, and school-board members to replace dissection with computer simulations, videodisks, and other alternatives that do not depend on the death of animals.

The PETA campaign opens a new--and potentially more militant--front in a long-standing debate over the use of animal dissection as a pedagogical strategy in precollegiate education.

The organization--which advocates a “vegan” ethic that forswears any use of animals or animal byproducts, including eggs and milk-- is placing a high priority on its anti-dissection efforts, she added.

The new campaign grows out of PETA’s “undercover investigation” of allegedly inhumane procedures involving animals at two companies that provide prepared specimens to many of the nation’s schools. The group’s investigation received national exposure on an ABC news report last October.

“We’ve always been against dissection,” Ms. Brebner said. “But now, we feel we have some good evidence about why people should be turning away from it.”

Some states, including California, already have laws that allow students to refuse to dissect lab animals without penalty. And many school districts, and even individual schools, have either abolished the practice or are offering alternatives to students who refuse to participate.

But PETA believes that dissection has no place in the curriculum at all, Ms. Brebner said.

“We don’t think [exemptions] are enough at this point, and finding a decent alternative is not that difficult,” she said. “Ideally, we’re asking [advocates] to ask for a ban.”

The materials also advise objectors, as a last resort, to get in touch with an animal-rights advocacy center at Rutgers University for advice on how to achieve their aims through litigation.

“If the schools are very resistant to [change],” she said, “then we are recommending that they take legal action.”

Animal dissection, long a staple in high-school biology classes, has come under increasing fire in recent years from critics who assert the practice leads to the unnecessary suffering and death of animals in return for knowledge that can easily be obtained through computer simulations and models.

“It’s one of the most emotional issues in biology education,” said Alison Rasmussen, a spokesman for the National Association of Biology Teachers. “I would compare it, in a way, to how people feel about the abortion debate.”

And, some observers caution, the largely emotional tenor of the deL bate--along with the prominent role played by animal-rights advocates in the discussion--threatens to produce a chilling effect on the use of dissection that mirrors that inflicted by religious fundamentalists on the teaching of evolution in recent years.

Indeed, a news report in the November 1990 issue of the weekly scholarly journal Science suggested that lawsuits at the postsecondary level already might be having just such an effect.

“I think there are those concerns,” said Franklin Loew, dean of the school of veterinary medicine at Tufts University. “There is the feeling that [banning dissection] sends the message, ‘There’s something wrong with all that.”’

Even before PETA begins its latest offensive, some school districts already are responding to the public ity about the group’s investigations of the Carolina Biological Supply Company of Burlington, N.C., and Wards Scientific, also of Burlington. (See related story, page 13.

In the Pittsburgh public schools, for example, as part of a sweeping review of the science curriculum, the district’s 40 high-school biology teachers last fall began a yearlong debate about the educational merits of dissection to decide whether to re tain the procedure, said Doris LitH man, the district’s associate director of science education.

Ms. Litman said that the educational merits of dissection were the primary concern, but that moral and ethical considerations could also warrant a change in policy.

Late last month, during the second of three inservice meetings devoted to the topic, Ms. Litman told teachers that, while some educators consider the information gleaned from dissection to be basic to the high-school science curriculum, others, including herself, argue that it is an outmoded and ethically questionable means of instilling an appreciation for the life sciences.:

“Right now, we have an opportunity to start examining those basic principles,” she told them.

Before the meeting began, Ms. Litman expressed confidence during an interview that there already existed a consensus in the district to abandon dissection in favor of videodisk-based instruction and other alternatives. She expected to begin drafting a new policy on the issue within weeks after the inservice. But despite the overall mood of tolerance for alternative viewpoints that characterized the meeting, it quickly became clear that many teachers echoed the sentiments of one of their most vocal colleagues, who argued that they were being “ramrodded” into abandoning the practice.

One teacher argued for those students who oppose dissection on moral and ethical grounds, even in cases involving edible fish or other animals. “Not all people eat chicken,” said William Hileman, a teacher at Westinghouse High School. “There might be some students that don’t, and you’re devaluing their views. “But others countered that the concerns of objectors were being accommodated at the expense of others. “Their opinion is just as valid as everyone else’s,” said John Novak, a veteran biology teacher, who acted as an unofficial spokesman for the dissenting teachers. “But they’re one out of 30. If you’re saying the tail should wag the entire dog, then no.”

In the end, the teachers failed to reach the consensus that Ms. Litman had sought.

“We obviously know where she’s coming from,” Mr. Novak said. “But, if we’re truly supposed to reach consensus on this, I can’t believe my colleagues here will be getting rid of dissection.”

Like the teachers in Pittsburgh, advocates on both sides of the national debate say they are prepared for a protracted struggle over the issue. “I don’t believe that there is a consensus,” Ms. Rasmussen of the biology teachers’ association said. “I would hesitate to say that there’s a minority [on] either [side].”

The controversy over animal rights and the value of dissection has prompted a number of professional organizations, including the National Science Teachers Association, to review their policies on dissection and on use of animals in biology classes. The nsta is now in the process of rewriting its policies, but a spokes man declined to discuss what changes might be made.

The topic was largely absent from a report issued last fall by the National Research Council, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, on the failure of high-school biology to pique students’ curiosity about high-school science.

“Fulfilling the Promise: Biology Education in the Nation’s Schools” offered a sweeping menu of recommendations for more effective teaching of biology and other precollegiate sciences, but it did not specifically address the educational merits of dissection.

“That’s not something to which we devoted a great deal of time or attention,” noted Timothy Goldsmith, a professor of biology at Yale University and the chairman of the committee that drafted the report. Donna M. Gerardi, the NRC’s staff director for the project, explained that the committee felt that “laboratory exercises are only one small segment of biology and [that] dissection is an even smaller segment of that.”

The 152-page report does contain a six-item checklist of “crucial functions” that laboratory exercises should achieve, including the proposition that “direct hands-on experience produces lasting memory.”

The document also includes an appendix specifying guidelines for the use of animals in precollegiate education drafted by the n.r.c.'s Institute of Laboratory Animal Resources.

Mr. Goldsmith declined to discuss the pedagogical merits of dissection, referring questions to Dr. Loew of Tufts. He did, however, note that “it’s a very controversial topic at the moment.”

As a process for studying comparative anatomy, dissection is, in the minds of many teachers, a “time-honored tradition” in the study of the biological sciences and an unparalleled form of “hands-on” instruction.

Yet, it was only in the 1920’s that dissection became “commonly used” in the curriculum, according to the NABT, and it was only in the late 1950’s that the practice became widespread. The organization credits the establishment at that time of the Biological Sciences Curriculum Study, a private nonprofit curriculum-development firm, as the motivating factor behind the widespread use of dissection in biology.

Therefore, as Ms. Rasmussen of the NABT said, given the age of to day’s teaching force, it has become a truism that “anyone who’s teaching [biology] now would say that’s the way it’s always been done."t the BSCS itself has gradually done away with the use of dissection in the two versions of the curriculum it still publishes, said Jean P. Milani, who oversees revision of both the “blue” version, which focuses on molecular biology, and the “green” one, which employs an ecological approach.

Graham, then a student at Victor Valley High School in Victorville, Calif., sued be cause she was not offered an alternative to dissection. (See Education Week, May 6, 1987.)

Ms. Graham, who cited her “strong moral belief” in respecting all living things, also refused to be transferred to another life-sciences course.

Ms. Graham eventually won the grade change that she had sought. Her case was the basis of the California law mandating that alternatives to dissection be offered, if possible, to students who object.

Recently, Ms. Graham and her mother established a “dissection hot line” for students seeking assistance in objecting to the practice.

Recently, the debate has drawn the attention not only of PETA, but of other animal-welfare groups.

The National Association for Humane and Environmental Education, the education arm of the Humane Society of the United States, also has produced a packet of mate rials about alternatives to animal dissection.

The package includes lesson plans and sources of such alternative materials as videodisks and computer simulations, and information on such activities as modeling a frog out of clay.

The group also produces a series of guidelines for the study of animals in precollegiate biology that refer to dissection as “unnecessary” to the teaching of biology and inconsistent with the goal of fostering an appreciation of life.

“We don’t feel that dissection is appropriate for any precollege student,” said Willow Ann Soltow, the association’s manager of special programs.

Students who will go on to major in the life sciences in college will have the opportunity there to actually dissect animals, she added.

The association also argues that students themselves can become “desensitized to [animal] suffering” in the process of dissection.

“It can be an extremely traumatizing experience,” Ms. Soltow said. “A child might deny that, out of a misplaced sense of guilt or shame, but it can have a negative effect.”

Dr. Loew of Tufts said students often are unclear about the merits of # the arguments against dissection. Often, he said, they worry that the animals suffer for no apparent reason, which misses the primary contention of animal-rights activists.

“Essentially, what we’re talking about is animals that have been killed and prepared for dissection,” he said. “The animal-rights viewpoint, simply argues that it is wrong to take - an animal’s life for this purpose.”

But, he added, simple dislike of the concept, in itself, is not a scientifically valid reason to call for abolishing the practice.

“There are people who find algebra loathsome as well,” he said. ''I’m just not sure that it’s as substantial an objection as the former one.”

However inconsistent their arguments may be, said Ms. Milani of the BSCS, the animal-rights activists : have already changed biology teach; ing.

“There’s no question that the animal-rights movement has had an effect on all biology textbooks,” she said. “But the animal-rights people don’t seem to get uptight if you dissect a grasshopper or a worm, it’s when you get into vertebrates that they get upset.”

Yet, the involvement of these activists in the debate also has created a backlash among some traditional biology teachers, who question the reliability of PETA’s undercover report as well as the group’s motives. “I definitely think there is a knee-jerk reaction among some teachers,” said Ms. Rasmussen of the biology teachers’ association. “People always assume [the NABT is] on the animal-rights side.”

While much of the publicity surrounding students and teachers who object to dissection focuses on ethical concerns, there are also critics who question the educational value of dissection for most students.

Ms. Litman of Pittsburgh, herself a biology teacher for more than 25 years, said that the majority of dissection procedures in her district’s schools tend to be rote labeling or identifying exercises in which students attempt to match internal organs to drawings or to fill in blank spaces on a questionnaire.

She also argued that the choice of the animals dissected often is questionable and that calls for science-education reform should lead districts to scrutinize long-held assumptions about teaching.

“Is it necessary, for example, to teach earthworm anatomy?” she asked. “And is it necessary to use dissection to teach that?”

Many educators argue, however, that the practice has great value for precollegiate students.

“There really is no substitute for a dissection, if it has substantive educational purpose,” Ms. Milani said. “A lot can be learned by students about their own structures, about structure versus function, and about biological adaptation.”

And, while electronic media and other substitutes may have a place in the classroom, they do not reinforce such scientific concepts as variability within species, said William Andrews, a science-education specialist with the California Department of Education.

“There is so much variability in what is normal,” he said. “What’s true for your earthworm may not be true for the [next] guy. And there is value in being able to see that not all organisms, even in the same species, are built the same, work the same, look the same.”

And, Mr. Andrews argued, rather than being desensitized to the value of life and living organisms, children may be stimulated to learn L(more about the world around them when they understand how it works.

“It’s exciting,” he said. “It’s sort of like detective work.”

Several courses in the state’s life-sciences curriculum include dissection, he said, including an advanced anatomy class in a Southern California high school that uses human cadavers.

Dr. Loew of Tufts said that dissection can be justified for college undergraduate or graduate students because it “gives them a mental picture that cannot be conveyed by any picture or any movie.”

But, he added, the practice should be used more selectively among younger students because not all have achieved the same emotional or intellectual maturity.

“The capacity to learn from any experience is different in an 11th [grader than in a] 12th grader, and between a 12th grader and a 9th grader.” Ms. Litman noted that dissection was once offered in the early grades in Pittsburgh, but has since been dropped for several reasons, including the perception that young students do not have sufficiently developed motor skills to benefit from the practice.

And while dissection opponents argue that only a select few students will go on to careers in medicine, its supporters contend that a growing number of careers in the health industry require such a background. “We realize that the majority of the kids are not going to become pre-med,” Mr. Andrews said. “But they’re going to be at a distinct disadvantage to kids from other districts nationwide if they haven’t had the experience.”

Added Charlotte Atwood, a biology teacher in Pittsburgh, “One of the things that got me into biology is that I like to dissect.”

So often caught in the middle of the debate, science teachers find themselves confused and uncertain about how best to meet their students’ educational requirements while respecting their ethical views.

It was to help clear up some of the confusion that the NABT published its monograph “The Responsible Use of Animals in Biology Classrooms, Including Alternatives to Dissection,” Ms. Rasmussen said.

“I think a lot teachers want to have a tool for dealing with the controversy,” she said. “They want to have a way of dealing with it that doesn’t create problems for themselves or their schools.”

Yet, she added, the statement itself has been attacked as not neutral enough.

Mr. Andrews of the California Department of Education was among those who questioned the premise of the monograph in a letter in which he argued that he was “concerned with where NABT placed [its] emphasis.”

A policy statement contained in the monograph defends the use of dissection as a pedagogical tool, while arguing that "[i]t is timely to re-examine the use of animals in precollege education.”

“The dissection of animals has a long and well-established place in the teaching of life sciences,” it adds. “Well-constructed dissection activities conducted by thoughtful instructors can illustrate important and enduring concepts in biology.”

But, while the educational merits of dissection are laid out in the initial pages, the balance of the 146- page document is given to alternative procedures.

“That’s the bandwagon people jump on, that interactive materials can be substituted,” Mr. Andrews said. “But there’s nothing around that says that they are hot stuff. And this was exactly the policy statement that was quoted to us by our animal-rights friends.” The NABT issued a clarification of its position last November that argued that the original policy statement did “not advocate the abolition of dissection.”

But, it added, “cavalier justifications on the grounds that ‘we have always done this’ are unacceptable.”

"[We] propose that individual teachers be clear about their own justifications,” the statement says. Yet, some observers, including. Novak of Pittsburgh, believe that, despite the rhetoric of shared decisionmaking, the final decision is likely to be made by district-level curriculum specialists, not teachers.

In some districts, however, a balance is being struck between the old and the new. The Pittsburgh schools, Ms. Litman said, have ordered videodisk players to supplement, and one day perhaps to replace, the lessons now being taught with a dissecting pan and scalpel. And, in the Montgomery County, Md., school system, biology teachers often use computer simulations to prepare students before dissection as well as to “debrief” them afterward. Gene Nelson, a biology teacher at Bullard High School in Fresno, Calif., an advocate of dissection for most of his career, is now also an enthusiastic user of videodisks.

“For 22 years I bought the live frogs and I would pith them,” or sever their spinal columns, he said. “I thought it was the best lab and the best experience that the kids ever had.” But over the past three years, Mr. Nelson has begun to explore the benefits of videodisks and computer simulations. “It’ll show you, side by side, the circulation in the human heart and the frog’s heart,” he said. “You shouldn’t do that in the lab if you wanted to.”

Nevertheless, he said, for some students, particularly advanced students who will one day go on to careers in science or the health fields, hands-on dissection is invaluable. Indeed, national experts often decry the lack of hands-on experience in many of the nation’s science classes, and some observers wonder if videodisks and other alternatives stack up to the real thing. “Is seeing a liver on a computer screen the same as seeing a liver in a frog?” Dr. Loew asked. And “does [the difference] matter when you’re in the 10th grade?”

Meanwhile, he argued, more study is needed on the issue of whether the alternatives are as effective as the existing practice.

“The one thread that runs through this is that nobody’s done the experiment,” he said. “Wouldn’t you think that scientists, or their critics, would want to do that?”

Mr. Andrews, however, was more skeptical of using electronic and other media as substitutes for actual experience.

"[Dissection] gives an appreciation that these organisms were once living organisms and, if anything, it ought to help [students] understand that there ought to be humane treatment of animals,” he said. “When you see that on a two-dimensional video screen, you don’t get any sense of that at all.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 20, 1991 edition of Education Week as Campaign Opens New Front in Battle Over Dissection Issue Said