Md. bill would allow animal dissection opt-out

Now under consideration in the Maryland General Assembly is a bill that would allow students to opt-out of participation in coursework that involves living or dead animals, including dissections many students perform in science class, the Washington Post reports.


Dissection of a frog in biology, showing liver and other organs (Shannan Muskopf / Flickr CC)

State Senator Ronald Young, a Democrat from Frederick and Washington counties, said at a hearing last week for SB 90 that since there are many alternative ways to teach dissections that don’t involve sacrificing animals, students who don’t want to kill the animals shouldn’t be penalized.

“I remember in school once, kids were throwing frog legs around,” he said. “It was more of a joke than a learning experience.”

The legislation can be expected to save the schools a little money, since live animals for dissection cost more than a model or computer simulation and must be purchased for each group of kids or for each teacher who performs the dissection as a demonstration.

Issue 1: Save the animals

Animals sent to schools for dissection purposes were never pets and weren’t born in the wild. They were bred in captivity or in managed habitats for the express purpose of scientific or educational study.

“Animal activists prey on the emotions of pet owners,” writes Carolina Biological Supply. “They falsely claim that pets are stolen and sold to medical research facilities and suppliers of animals for scientific research. According to the Americans for Medical Progress Educational Foundation, there is no market for stolen pets in biomedical research.

“The US Department of Agriculture, under the Animal Welfare Act, governs the procurement of animals. Carolina is proud to have an outstanding USDA inspection and compliance record, and we are committed to treating all animals in a humane manner.”

However, the animals are killed prior to the dissection in almost every case. Killing most animals can be done in a painless way, but whether or not a given teacher has the training to do this is an open question.

I generally dismiss emotional arguments, because if using actual animals is the only way to go, then the argument is irrelevant. But it’s not the only way to go, as Mr Young and our state senators now know.

Issue 2: Teach kids better

Having gone to medical school at the University of Chicago (which, at the time, outranked Hopkins) and then taught undergraduate introductory biology at the University of Illinois, I can say I’ve done my fair share of dissections. Incidentally, I’ve also killed lots of frogs for biomedical research I used to do at U of I.

Speaking from experience, I find it absolutely appalling that Mr Young threw frog legs around his classroom as a kid. That is not how a classroom should be run, and to form any judgment about this bill on the argument that a group of kids showed disrespect and disregard for animals’ lives, probably because they were kids or under the supervision of a poorly trained or equipped teacher, is improper for a lawmaker.

We should instead pass laws that cater to the best of us, the best our schools can give. Let’s dismiss the inappropriate or irrelevant argument, then, and talk about how having kids do live dissections, in small groups or on their own, is a complete waste of time. Even in medical school, working with human cadavers, my time and the generous gift the person made of his body after death would have been wasted without a constant guiding hand from two professors and three teaching assistants.

Now, medical school teaches lots of things besides anatomy, such as how to handle different tissues, and so on. Even that doesn’t necessarily need a cadaver:

Despite concerns from older generations of doctors, the consequence of removing dissection from the medical curricula does not mean students are left to fend for themselves when learning anatomy. In fact, a multitude of methods are available to bridge gaps left by this tradition. However, studies and first-hand evidence highlight students’ keenness to augment their knowledge by utilizing methods involving cadaveric specimens. Additionally, retrospective studies are essential to help gather first-hand evidence of the benefits and shortfalls in non-dissection teaching.

Perspect Med Educ 4(5):259-260 (Oct 2015)

For high school or middle school students, though, dissecting an animal is completely about learning the anatomy and physiology of the animal’s body systems. That means there’s no point, from an educational perspective, in having kids handle (or even kill) the animals. They will botch it every day of the week and twice on Sunday and learn nothing of value.

Therefore, lessons should be presented on video or, at least, by a trained teacher who knows how to sacrifice the animal in the least painful way possible. Whether or not SB 90 passes, teachers of biology should consider the evidence here. SB 90 gives students an opt-out opportunity, but it also shines a light on a way—at least 500 ways, Mr Young said—to learn science.

Of Maryland’s 24 public school districts, 17 have no written policy about students who don’t wish to participate in dissections. A few districts—Anne Arundel, Montgomery, Harford, Baltimore City—oppose the bill. A similar bill introduced in 2016 (SB 901) received an unfavorable report from the Senate Education, Health, and Environmental Affairs Committee.

Editorial

SB 90 this year can be expected to meet a similar fate as SB 901 did last year, simply because legislating on a statewide basis any direction as to how a certain lesson should be taught is hardly ever a good idea. Although we can appreciate the drive parents have to engage schools, teachers, and students in constructive dialog about how certain lessons are taught, what works in Frederick County may not necessarily work in Harford County.

Furthermore, while the anatomy and physiology of animals in this particular area of our schools’ curriculum might be taught better to students in some way other than dissection, it’s the beginning of a slippery slope to introduce a law directing schools how to teach certain lessons. I believe the emotional arguments over animal dissection have no basis in fact—at least in the way qualified teachers deliver these lessons—but I also find no evidence that schools are teaching animal anatomy poorly or in a way that would require lawmakers to step in to order improvements. We can applaud the engagement and open assertion that dissection might not be the best way to teach this particular lesson, but that discussion may be best left to individual students, parents, and teachers in each of our schools.

About the Author

Paul Katula
Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.