Animal dissections clash with vegetarian ethics

Ann Vettikkal | Staff Writer

Junior Manju Karthikeyan (far right) dissected various animals as part of the curriculum of her Zoology and Biomedical Sciences programs.

Dissections may be a high school rite of passage, but the classic trope comes with some ethical baggage. 

The dissections at MHS occur in Honors Anatomy & Physiology, Zoology, and Biomedical Sciences. They range from sheep hearts to sharks, providing students with hands-on experience with the class material. Honors Anatomy and Zoology teacher Carol Lehman explained how these animals are supplied. 

“The fetal pigs that we buy are from slaughterhouses — the parents are being processed for food,” Lehman said. “And [their offspring] are sold to biological supply companies which in turn sell them off. A lot of the fish are actually cultivated from fishermen. And then there are some that are from laboratories and grown for this.”

The main dilemma regarding dissections is spearheaded by dietary restrictions which are sometimes products of larger ideologies on animal treatment. Senior Nick Flood, who had been a vegetarian for six years, decided to make the full leap toward veganism just last month. 

“I first became a vegetarian because of environmental concerns and the ethics of factory farming,” Flood said. “And then I became vegan because I was so close to it — I don’t use leather, I wasn’t eating eggs, I wasn’t drinking milk — and that was always my goal.”

But dietary restrictions for religious purposes are a different matter entirely. At least, for junior Manju Karthikeyan, it’s her practice as a Hindu that restricts her from certain meat consumption. 

“On specific holidays I can’t eat meat,” Karthikeyan said. “And since I’m Hindu I can never eat beef. In India, [Hindus] see the cow as a holy animals. Because of that, we don’t eat it.”

Veganism for ethical reasons proves difficult in a subject that is solely focused on studying the body on the micro-level. When Flood attends his Honors Anatomy & Physiology class during dissection day, he chooses to assume a supporting role rather than wield the scalpel. 

I feel like it’s very old-fashioned. There are other ways.

Nick Flood, senior

“The first [dissection] we did was a sheep heart,” Flood said. “I was disgusted with the entire time. I was like ‘I don’t want to touch it.’ I let my partner cut it. It kind of grossed me out. The second thing is that I don’t feel like it’s necessary. I feel like it’s very old fashioned. There are other ways — like digital dissections.”

But for Karthikeyan, given the rationale of her diet, being vegetarian does not limit her participation in both Biomedical Sciences and Zoology dissections. 

“At first, [dissections] were kind of gross,” Karthikeyan said. “But I got used to it and they’re my favorite parts of class because it’s educational and it’s cool to see stuff hands-on. Even though some days I’m vegetarian I don’t see that as something that should stop me from doing dissection. Because it’s for science rather than religious purposes.”

Lehman has taught Honors Anatomy for 29 years. Based on her experience and the reception from her students, she believes there is no substitute for the real thing. 

“There’s no better lab experience about human body systems than using specimens — actually having that tactile experience,” Lehman said. “There are great computer simulations and other substitutes but in terms of actually having the organisms and doing comparative anatomy, it’s really going to impact you more when you do the dissection — the proper way.”

Lehman emphasized the importance of treating the matter professionally and with respect. She noted the difference between a bona fide dissection and other ways of treating the specimen. 

“There has to be a clear point,” Lehman said. “Why are you [dissecting]? It’s not just to cut up specimens and take pictures for social media and whatever. That’s borderline horrifying. For a lot of people interested in being doctors or going to medical professions, it’s an invaluable experience. There has to be a methodology — it has to be for science.”

Lehman recalled that only two students in her entire teaching career had refused to dissect totally. Regardless, as long as the dissector and what’s being dissected are treated with respect, there seem to be few grave issues at MHS. Flood can maintain his personal beliefs while remaining in the Honors Anatomy learning environment. 

“To get the grade for the [dissection] you have to participate,” Flood said. “ I just kind of stay back and if I’m needed, I’ll help. I have a nice partner who is fine with it and my teacher, Mrs. Long, is really respectful about it. She understands that it’s coming from an animal that was once living. It’s just to me, I don’t know why we’re still doing it — there are new ways that we can learn about anatomy without using animal parts. I prefer not to touch [the specimen] but if I’m required to and I need to, I will.”

Photo contributed by Manju Karthikeyan.