While science educators use animals for many purposes, by far the most outdated, wasteful and unethical practice of all is classroom dissection, generally defined as “the practice of cutting apart or separating tissue for anatomical study.”
Though classroom dissection traces back to the turn of the 20th century, it didn’t become a widespread, established component of our science curriculum until the 1920s. As an accepted teaching tool in American schools – from the elementary level through college – frog and fetal pig dissection became so common, it required the participation of most students (especially for the study of anatomy and physiology). Today, in the American educational system alone, an estimated six million animals are dissected every year. Perhaps even more shocking, millions of animals of various species are intentionally “purpose bred” or “harvested” from the wild for the sole purpose of killing and dissecting them in the misguided name of science education.
The issues surrounding dissection have, of course, long been muddied by controversy. Some educators – flying in the face of modern scientific advancement – cling to the defense of dissection with the groundless assertion that “hands-on” experience remains the best rite of initiation in exposing children to the love of science. Their chief argument seems to be that the practice has been around for more than a century – akin to the 19th century medical establishment’s defense of the practice of bleeding: “We’ve always done it that way, so there’s no need to change.” The fact is, dissection is so deeply rooted in “tradition,” it took the ethical objections of students for the arguments against it to come to light in the first place.
The defenses of dissection are numerous, varied and, in our view, irrational. Hence, our major objections, which include:
Dissection Harms Animals
Dissection not only requires the abuse and killing of tens of millions of animals, it instills a view that animal life is expendable and unimportant, thereby promoting desensitization to animal suffering. As a result, many students who have the potential to become great scientists or health care professionals may be discouraged to pursue such endeavors because they do not wish to take part in senseless cruelty and killing. Worse yet, students who do become desensitized to the horrors of animal experimentation will likely go on to engage in it their entire careers, and even promote it among future generations of science students.
Dissection is Dangerous to People and the Environment
Students engaged in dissection are exposed to a myriad of serious health risks. Chief among these hazards include exposure to sharp objects and contact with dangerous chemicals such as formaldehyde, a highly toxic preservative linked to cancer, birth defects, reproductive disorders, eye problems and asthma attacks. What’s more, when these chemical compounds aren’t disposed of properly (as is too often the case), they can have cumulatively harmful effects on the environment.
Another startling ecological threat posed by the dissection industry as a whole is the irreversible damage it does to entire animal populations. The massive collecting of frogs has depleted many local populations, leading some areas--Canada, Michigan and Wisconsin--to outlaw their commercial harvesting.
Dissection is Economically Wasteful
While the initial investment in non-animal alternatives may be costly in the short term, they are more far more economical in the long run simply because they can be used over and over again, with no need to constantly replenish (and pay for) supplies of once-live animals.
So why don’t we simply adopt these safer, more innovative and more economical alternatives? Because dissection is big business. Just browse any educational supply catalog and page after page brims with pictures of once-living “specimens.” Visit any science-teacher conference and you can’t avoid seeing displays of “resources” such as frogs, fetal pigs, cats, mice, rats, rabbits, birds, bats, fish, reptiles and assorted invertebrates, all gratuitously sacrificed in the name of science. Add to that the countless number of species “harvested” from the wild, precariously tilting the balance of ecosystem biodiversity, and the scope of horror becomes enormous.
In this cruel, senseless attack on the animal kingdom, two common denominators hold:
- Cruelty to and suffering of countless, sentient species.
- Big profits for companies providing “specimens.”
Dissection is Academically Unnecessary
To begin with, students who utilize humane alternatives to dissection score as well or better on performance tests than students who participate in dissection.
Secondly, a recent NAVS survey uncovered the fact that no state board of education requires participation in dissection as a condition of graduation.
Thirdly, we found no college or university that stipulates dissection participation as a prerequisite for entrance. The fact is, any student in the United States can make it through high school, college and grad school to become a licensed physician, veterinarian, biologist, etc. without having to harm a single animal!
Yet, even armed with clear evidence of dissection’s health hazards, environmental damage, wasteful spending, desensitization to cruelty and lower science-test performance, students objecting to dissection may still face the threat of a lower grade or other punitive action. That’s why we created the NAVS Dissection Hotline – 1-800-922-FROG (3764) – the nation’s only toll-free resource for information and expert counseling on how to avoid classroom dissection without penalty, and how to implement dissection alternatives without compromising sound science.
Guidelines for Objecting to Dissection
Dissection Alternative Resources
Student Choice Toolkit