Dissection: `Necessary for learning' or unethical?
Each year, 5.7 million animals are used in dissections in secondary and college classrooms across the country, including at Notre Dame. These animals are considered "unwanted." as they often come from slaughterhouses, animal shelters, streets or research labs.
While some people protest the ethical aspects of this practice, the procedure has met little opposition at Notre Dame.
At the University of Kansas, a group of students who object to such use of animals has organized to form Proponents of Animal Liberation (PAL) to address these concerns. PAL's mission is one of environmental and social justice. This group has submitted a proposal to their governing board requesting that alternatives to dissections be provided for students who ethically object to the procedure.
At Notre Dame, no such effort is made. Some students do object, but no organized policy exists to assist such people.
"I'm pretty much opposed to dissection," said one sophomore arts and letters pre-professional student. "I've found computer programs that simulate dissection, and they're pretty well done. But I'm afraid my grades would be affected if I object."
The United States Humane Society (USHS) and the animal-rights organization People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) have researched the necessity of classroom dissection. Both groups endorse the many published articles asserting that students using alternatives to dissection learn equally well or better than those that dissect in classes.
Notre Dame pre-professional and biology students utilize animals for dissection as part of their required curriculum. Typically in their sophomore year, pre-professional students dissect fetal pigs in general biology lab. Educators tend to state that the experience is generally thought of as an essential part of the learning process for those planning to pursue science as a career. Many students are caught in the middle of the issue.
"Honestly, I don't like the idea of cutting open animals, but I think it's necessary for the advancement of science," said Mary Beth Patterson, a junior science-pre-professional major.
Many students have performed some kind of dissection in high school prior to their first college experience, and some as early as fifth grade, but the topic continues to be a difficult one.
"I'm kind of torn on the issue," said junior Christina Pride. "One the one side, I feel it's necessary for learning. But on the other side, I feel it's an unnecessary waste of life."
Most educators understand the debate, but still defend dissection as necessary for the learning process. The National Association of Biology Teachers (NABT) have issued a statement that supports dissection when it is done with proper care and following ethical guidelines. The NABT also encourages teachers to be sensitive to those students that object.
Dr. Mark Suckow, director of the Freimann Life Center, is an advocate of sensible dissection.
"There are some alternative ways to teach anatomy [other than dissection], but in my experience as a veterinarian, there are some things that are invaluable to see in 3-D," said Suckow.
Some students are devoted to traditional techniques and value the hands-on experience.
"Dissection is necessary to fully grasp some aspects of anatomy and physiology. Certain tissues cannot be fully expressed with words. They need to be visually seen and physically touched to fully understand the composition and [its] function," said junior Sarah Schneider.
The approach that Notre Dame departments and professors take is to provide students with the opportunity to get the hands-on experience that seems very beneficial. In order to make it ethical, however, the minimum number of animals is used and specific guidelines are followed.
"In our laboratory animal science course, we have six to eight students per semester, and they are all pre-vet. We try to keep it down to a minimum [number of enrollees] for humane reasons," said Kay Stewart, an associate professional specialist from the Freimann Life Center.
There is also an effort to spare the lives of animals by harvesting specific organs from animals slaughtered for meat, according to Sunny Boyd, associate professor of biology.
Jack Duman, the chair of the department of biological sciences, said that as technology has increased, the need for dissection has lessened, but maintains that these alternative techniques are still not comparable to the actual process.
"Using models and computer software is not the same as doing it yourself. Ultimately, the use of animals in biological and medical research is absolutely essential," he said.
In their argument against animal dissection, PETA also cites the fact that Great Britain's medical education system is still functioning successfully despite a 100 year-long ban on animal use for medical education.
Notre Dame's efforts do not eliminate loss of animal life completely. Biology and pre-professional majors may be required to perform dissections at some point in their undergraduate career,
For those students who are interested, the biology club sponsors a rat dissection every year for those interested in dissection experience. This year's rat dissection will be held on Nov. 3.
"I think [dissection] is a great learning technique. In general, it's a good thing if done properly," said Aaron From, president of the biology club.
All News Stories for Friday, October 29, 1999