CNN reported yesterday (http://www.cnn.com/2008/US/10/14/cutout.dissection.ap/index.html) that 19 year old Jennifer Thornburg officially changed her name to “Cutout Dissection.com” as a way of protesting animal dissection in schools. Her new name also attracts attention to her PETA sponsored website, http://cutoutdissection.com/ . This story got me thinking about the wrongfulness of dissection.
As one of the informational brochures distributed by PETA contends, millions of animals are dissected in schools every year, including frogs, mice, rabbits, fish, worms, and insects. Obviously, I think there are good reasons to ban this practice. Thanks to technological advances, most, if not all, of the educational benefits that are reaped by dissecting these creatures can now be achieved by buying software programs that allow students to engage in virtual dissections.
It should be noted, however, that some organizations, such as the National Science Teachers Association (NSTA), believe that the educational value of dissection sometimes justifies the practice. More specifically, the NTSA argues that dissection may be used by a teacher in order to help students develop skills of observation and comparison, discover the shared and unique structures and processes of specific organisms, and develop a greater appreciation for the complexity of life (http://www.nsta.org/about/positions/animals.aspx).
Assuming that dissection does help students develop these skills, would this be enough to justify the practice? In order to answer this question, I think that it is necessary to understand what is wrong with animal dissection in the first place. Dissection is not wrong because the very act of dissecting an animal is harmful to the creature. Since dissection involves cutting into a dead animal (if they are alive, then the process of cutting into the creature is termed a vivisection), this act is no more harmful to them than an autopsy is harmful to a human being. Thus, the wrongfullness of dissection stems not from the act, but from the unjustifiable suffering that is typically caused to animals that are destined to be dissected before they reach the classroom (they are, for example, sometimes kept in small cages and without food in unhygienic rooms for a considerable amount of time).
If this is truly what’s wrong with animal dissection, those who – like me – are committed to reducing the amount of suffering that humans inflict on animals must ask themselves whether there are ways in which dissection could be justified. What if we only dissect animals who have died of natural causes? If the wrongfulness of animal dissection is the suffering inflicted by humans on animals before they reach the classroom, why would it be wrong to dissect an animal that died as a result of a natural process? Furthermore, assuming that earthworms don’t have the capacity to suffer, why would it be wrong to dissect them? (BTW, I’m aware that the question of whether worms suffer is controversial. There is evidence tending to demonstrate that they don’t – http://www.planetark.com/dailynewsstory.cfm/newsid/29405/story.htm – but the jury’s still out).
Although I’m not sure how to answer these questions, I still think that dissection should be banned from the classrooms. Even if it’s unclear whether dissecting earthworms or animals that have died of natural causes is morally objectionable, why do so if computer simulations provide roughly the same educational value? When in doubt, I’d rather experiment on a computer than on an animal.