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Banning Dissection: Where California Goes, So Goes the Nation

In 1987, Jennifer Graham, a 15-year-old California high school student, refused to dissect a frog because she believed doing so would be immoral. She asked her teacher for an alternative assignment, but her request was denied and her grade suffered. Jennifer sued the school district, claiming that requiring dissection violated her First Amendment right to her deeply held religious and moral beliefs. A year later, California’s education code was amended, giving all California K-12 public school students the right to refrain from dissection and to be given an alternative assignment without penalty.

Today, thanks to Graham, 18 states have enacted student choice laws in public education. But even in those states, dissection remains a problem. First, the right to an alternative does not extend to the more than half a million students attending private K-12 schools in California. When teachers in private schools do not allow alternatives, students of conscience face the choice between a lower grade or moral compromise. Second, students in public schools are often not informed of their right to object, in violation of the education code. Third, even if they are properly informed, discomfort with confronting teachers in a position of authority and fear of standing out often keeps students from exercising that right. And fourth, if students choose to abstain from dissection, they are still exposed to it when it is performed in the classroom.

This not just an issue for a few conscientious objectors. More than 20 years ago, The New York Times noted that “a rebellion has been growing in the science laboratories of the nation’s schools as a growing number of students refuse to dissect animals, usually on the ground that it is inhumane.” It has continued to grow since. Many young Americans express concern for the welfare of animals, and studies show that students are more comfortable with alternatives to dissection than dissection itself.

Students are not unreasonable in their ethical concerns. The millions of animals used in dissection — including lambs, turtles, frogs, pigs, rats, mice, pigeons, dogs and cats — are acquired from factory farms, from their habitats through trapping and through the rounding up of community cats and lost pets by shelters that are supposed to save animals, not sell them to be cut apart. When pressed with concerns, Carolina Biological, a company that supplies the bodies of animals to schools, confirmed that they exclusively use healthy cats acquired from animal shelters. For every lesson in anatomy it is supposed to provide, dissection also teaches students that they can use and discard animals, desensitizing them to death and suffering.

Not only is dissection unethical, it is also an outdated method of education. Scores of studies show that alternatives to dissection, such as videos, lectures and plastic and computer models are at least as effective, if not more effective, at educating students. These alternatives can be performed many times to ensure mastery of course concepts, accurately portray animal and human anatomy and are more cost-effective.

These issues have prompted a second wave in the fight against dissection in California. Assemblymember Ash Kalra of San Jose has introduced Assembly Bill 1586, the Replacing Animals in Science Education (RAISE) Act, which would ban dissection in public and private K-12 schools in California. If students rally around this landmark legislation and make their voice, their interests and the interests of the animals heard, we can pass the first ban on dissection in America. It’s been more than 30 years since California passed the country’s first student choice law, setting a standard for others to follow. Now the state is poised to take the next step in advancing the interests of students and animals. And as California goes, so goes the nation.

AB 1586 is set for a hearing on May 1 and is facing opposition from some teachers. To overcome that opposition, join me in emailing, tweeting and calling legislators on the Committee on Education by going to aedn.assembly.ca.gov/membersstaff. Urge them to vote “yes” on AB 1586, the RAISE Act, and tell them that education in the twenty-first century requires twenty-first century solutions in line with our evolved moral values, not the unethical and outdated methods of the past.

Contact Willoughby Winograd at willjw ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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Willoughby J. Winograd

Willoughby J. Winograd

Willoughby J. Winograd is an undergraduate at Stanford University, studying public policy and applied ethics. At Stanford, he is an op-ed columnist for The Stanford Daily, an independent, student-run newspaper, and a committee member for the Associated Students of Stanford University. He has been an ethical vegan for all his life, and is deeply committed to the rights of both humans and animals. In accordance with this, he is currently in the process of writing a book, "Enlightenment 2.0: Human(e)ism for the 21st Century," which provides a roadmap — derived from science and guided by ethics — for a brighter future for our species, and all the species of the Earth, in the 21st century.