Students Say No to Dissection, Opt for Biology Class Alternatives
States consider laws to protect students with ethical objections
BOSTON — HIGH school student Dawn Boyer of Sterling, Mass., refused to dissect worms in biology class. Dawn, a sophomore, is opposed to dissection for ethical reasons and offered to do an alternative project. Her biology teacher was not accommodating at first, and informed Dawn she would receive a zero for the lab grade. ``As teachers, their responsibility is to show respect for life. Dissection does not show that responsibility,'' says Dawn. ``I'm really morally against it all.''
Animal rights groups say many students around the country like Dawn are ethically opposed to dissection, a standard procedure in high school biology classes. Many are afraid to object while others are starting to speak out. As students voice their complaints, educators are starting to listen and some are reconsidering the use of animals in laboratories and classrooms. In Dawn's case, for example, the school finally agreed to let Dawn work on an alternative anatomy project.
The issue brought together animal rights groups here who are pushing a state bill to protect students' rights not to dissect animals. According to the legislation, students would be informed two weeks before a dissection lab that they are not required to participate and would not be penalized.
The bill, sent to be studied by a legislative committee, may not see much action this year while the state wrestles with its own budget crisis. Nevertheless, activists held a rally last month to drum up support for the measure.
``There are students in Massachusetts that are running into this problem - students who believe they shouldn't have to dissect or don't want to dissect and are required to,'' says Steven Wise, a Boston lawyer and president of the Animal Legal Defense Fund. He and other animal rights activists point to measures around the country supporting students' rights against dissection:
California Gov. George Deukmejian (R) signed legislation two years ago to protect students' rights not to dissect animals. According to the law, students can be exempted from dissection if they bring a note from their parents and complete an alternative project.
A Florida law allows students to be excused from dissection if they bring a note from parents.
In Maine, the state's commissioner of education sent out a policy advisory last winter to public schools suggesting that teachers inform students they can choose not to dissect and can do alternative projects.
The dissection issue came into prominence three years ago when California high school student Jenifer Graham sued her school for lowering her grade after she refused to dissect a frog. She refused to dissect for ethical reasons.
The case against Victor Valley High School District, in Victorville, Calif., was dismissed by a federal judge who suggested the school provide Jenifer with photographs of a dissected frog that died of natural causes. Jenifer's mother, Patricia Graham - who was hoping her daughter could fulfill the lab requirement by an alternative project using models - says the case will be appealed.
College students are taking action as well. Jennifer Routh, a sophomore at State University of New York at Stony Brook, brought suit against the college in March for penalizing her when she refused to dissect a frog. Ms. Routh, who says she opposes dissection for ethical reasons, is pursuing a career in medicine. The school has yet to file papers in response to the suit.
Animal rights activists say students can learn about animal anatomy just as easily through the use of computer programs, videotapes, and models. Patricia Graham, who is also a member of the Animal Legal Defense Fund, admits it is hard to avoid dissection in college courses for biology majors. But she says students have alternatives.
To help students with dissection concerns, Ms. Graham created a toll-free dissection hotline. Since it started last year, she has received more than 15,000 calls from students nationwide.
While some educators have been receptive to alternative projects, others are skeptical. School administrators are concerned about the costs of providing new material for alternatives. In addition, some biology teachers say alternatives aren't effective learning tools.
Susan Offner, a biology teacher at Milton High School, in Milton, Mass., says students learn more when they take part in dissection. ``You're not going to learn your anatomy in the same way without dissecting,'' says Dr. Offner. ``There's no other way to really learn.''
She says if a student does object for moral reasons, then it should be up to the student to approach the teacher. In such a case, the teacher could then arrange an alternative project. Offner says legislation, like the Massachusetts bill, is too extreme.
``Standing up in class and announcing they have a right not to do an assignment ... it would be chaotic,'' she says.
Other teachers are more receptive to the use of alternatives. Dr. Joyce Schwartz, a biology teacher at Weston High School, in Weston, Mass., says only students in the advanced placement classes have dissection labs, and they are allowed to do alternative projects.