Dissecting the Classroom: Should the Law Protect Students with Ethical Objections?

For most secondary school students in science classrooms across the United States, dissection is inevitable. Some excitedly await the day, others nervously anticipate it. While several states allow students to sit out the process or participate in alternative programming, students in thirty-two states must partake in the activity or receive a failing grade—regardless of ethical or religious conflicts.

Maryland is one of those states. A bill that would have allowed students to utilize alternative programs in lieu of dissection was recently rejected by the state Senate, leaving students who object to dissection on ethical or religious grounds at risk of receiving failing grades. State Sen. Ronald Young, who introduced the bill, argued that in addition to respecting the conscience of students who don’t want to cut up animals, alternatives to such dissection could also save money. “There are over 500 alternative ways to teach dissections and there are much more humane ways to teach,” Young contended during a hearing on the bill. One such alternative is to have students dissect rubber frogs that are specifically with removable parts and can be used over and over. Despite these arguments, the bill lost on a 30-13 vote.

In other words, Maryland students had better brandish their scalpels, or else. This decision has spurred intense debate throughout the state. Should students be allowed to conscientiously reject activities delegated by their teachers without risking their grades?

Many educators choose to incorporate dissection in their biology curriculum because the hands-on approach has long been seen as optimal. Others, like teacher Debi Linton, say that seeing exactly how alike we are underneath gives students a greater understanding of their own biology. But the mere spectacle of class dissection day may not impart a greater understanding of biology and humanity as some teachers intend. The shock value of bringing a large number of dead animals into a classroom, coupled with the anticipation of mutilating bodies in such a way that adolescents in any other setting might be reprimanded for, detracts from the supposed greater lesson of the activity.

Responses to the experience of dissection vary wildly. While some students find themselves enthused by dissection, typical reactions are more convoluted—ranging from suppressed curiosity of defilement, indifference, repulsion, general confusion, or complete rejection of the practice. Scholars have observed traumatic memories in relation to dissecting animals in school during early adolescence. Animal rights advocate Kenneth Shapiro hypothesizes that dissection in the classroom engenders unresolved issues regarding the exploration of death. Some students may find that dissection is at odds with their identity-revealing experiences and sense of individuality, integrity, and privacy. Although adolescents will surely find these dichotomies elsewhere in society as well, school-endorsed dissection concretizes them through objectification, public display, and encouragement of the otherwise censured killing and mutilating of bodies. As a result, classroom dissections may instill within students an aversion to science via ethical conflict.

Because enough students have expressed concern over the dissection of animals in their schools, many alternatives exist. Numerous digital dissections and models are available to educators through a one-time purchase. These alternatives lower cost and time dedicated to the lesson. Additionally, in comparative studies, students using alternative methods tested just as well or better than their peers.

Since most school districts in states without alternative dissection laws do not have a written policy, students who object to dissection and/or seek alternatives risk receiving a failing grade. Students have attempted to object to dissection in the classroom under the First Amendment through freedom of religion, and by extension, conscience—which is a very fine line. As humanists, we believe that the pursuit of progress through ethical and scientific inquiry reinforce each other. The assumption that we must choose science education over ethics is a false one, and perhaps those considerations should hold just as much weight as religious ones currently do.

To simplify these matters, opponents of dissection advocate for the state to approve student choice laws. Proposals like the one introduced in Maryland seek to ensure that K-12 students can utilize alternatives without penalty. Although these laws provide students with an extra layer of protection, their absence does not necessarily mandate that students must participate in dissections or receive a failing grade. Depending on the county, school, or even the individual teacher, students may still be allowed use alternatives in the classroom.

Several questions remain: What are the implications of penalizing students who seek alternatives to harming other animals? And is there a greater danger in allowing religious exemptions over ethical ones? For some, the answers are simple. For others, like those in the majority of the Maryland State Senate, it seems a machete is the preferred tool for solving such ethical dilemmas.