Ethics on the topic of dissections in schools

Hi Readers,

After doing a number of dissections this week while studying the respiratory system of different species, one of the questions I needed to answer for a core practical was “Describe the approaches that were taken to ensure the ethically responsible use of animals in this practical activity”.

This got me thinking on what the different opinions were on dissections from an animals-rights activist’s point of view as well as those in favour of the dissections.

When doing some research I found a PETA article called “Dissections: Lessons on Cruelty”. It talks about the different animals that are commonly dissected, such as frogs and mice. It also mentions the methods in how the animals are obtained for dissection, implying that escaped cats, for example, were in fact stolen from their homes by suppliers of dissection animals. The article claims “Classroom dissection desensitizes students to the sanctity of life. Research has shown that a significant number of students at every educational level are uncomfortable with the use of animals in dissection and experimentation.” After seeing some of my peers uncomfortable with the dissection, I spoke to one of them about what exactly made them uncomfortable when watching/carrying out these practicals especially the compulsory core ones. She said: “I think sometimes it’s wasting animals. The core practical we did was dissecting a locust, which I was more comfortable with as insects are annoying. Also, if the animal is already dead then I don’t mind as much, for example, if it comes from a butcher’s. If it was a full cow on the other hand, I wouldn’t be okay with killing it just for dissecting. It could be used to feed a lot of people so dissecting it is just a waste. If a laboratory had to kill a healthy cow to do research I’d understand that but not for a school dissection as this is just to see what’s inside. I don’t really like the smell during these practical activities either, or the sight of blood.” Another peer commented that he was “just afraid of rats” so didn’t want to watch the dissection I was chosen to do in front of the class.

After reading another article, I read a statement that I found very concerning. Heidi Blake writes for the telegraph (2010) “Schools are abandoning the practice of cutting up frogs, rats and animal organs which has been a mainstay of biology lessons for generations, out of concern for squeamish pupils and fears that they could turn their scalpels on each other.” The article was based on the reduction of dissections taking place now due to health and safety concerns and that most of these practicals are now being replaced by videos or the teacher’s are carrying out demonstrations. The violent element of this statement surprised me as only a few generations before my own would claim that they remember hating biology due to having to capture their own and then dissecting the animal (mostly frogs). It leaves me with a few questions: is there more crime occurring now? Is it more between young people? Do we just hear about incidents more because of social media/ the news on national and international television?

In my opinion, I think by commercially killing animals to be eaten we are doing just as much harm as if we killed them for these practicals. We are claiming it is fine to kill them in order to fulfill a basic human need, but not fulfill the need of potential future scientists – this practice may influence a person to follow this career path who could go on to cure a human disease. This forms a cycle – treatment from disease is also a basic human need. In my experience, I have enjoyed dissections and recall wanting to dissect any animal as soon as I moved up to secondary school in order to learn more about how my own body functions as well as that of different animals. I have learned valuable skills such as accuracy, patience and steadiness. I also think diagrams of these animals usually don’t help at all and oversimplify structures; in a locust for example the spiracles are not obvious dots and if I hadn’t done the dissection myself I wouldn’t have understood fully the structure of the chitin supporting the tracheae, having not seen it under the microscope.

I have seen that many A level students are also currently carrying out these practices and would be very interested in hearing your views.




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