Human Anatomy and Physiology, 1997 - present
Portland Community College, Oregon, USA

I enrolled in a college-level Human Anatomy and Physiology class at Portland Community College in Oregon in autumn 1997. After many years of extensive study of botanical medicine and therapeutic herbalism, I was excited that I would be studying anatomy and physiology to a greater depth than before, and would soon enter a university medical degree course to prepare further for my career in human medicine.

Things were looking good. On the first day the instructor clearly knew the material and was a confident teacher. The next day was the first day of laboratory. All of a sudden, with no mention on the syllabus and no word from the instructor, we were told to dissect a rat. This was the beginning of my nightmare. The course description never stated that non-human animal dissection would be an integral part of the curriculum, and nowhere could I find the college's pedagogical methods described. I had no idea that this kind of practice even persisted these days, and certainly not at an institution in one of the country's most 'progressive' communities. I was shocked. Never would I have guessed that as I continued my education in the field of health care for humans, on a course called 'Human Anatomy and Physiology', I would be expected to dissect a rat, cat, lamb or pig.

In order to become the best healthcare practitioner - doctor - that I can, I would most certainly choose to work with human bodies and human parts. As an animal rights activist, I also completely disagree with all concepts of animal experimentation. I told my instructor that I was unable to take part in any dissection of non-human animals. I was concerned about the medical/physiological aspects of the species issue, and my spiritual and philosophical beliefs were insulted by this practice. I asked for an alternative and told him that I had no problem working on human tissue, let alone the vast array of alternative materials available such as models, CD-ROMs, and videos.

He was stunned, maybe never having met this situation before. He tried to reassure me that the rats were bred for this purpose and that the other animal parts were waste products from the food industry. I replied that neither justification was acceptable, and that both industries were offensive to me and my sensibilities. He assumed I was being squeamish, and his attitude suggested that as he had learned like this, so should I. Another biology teacher told me, "There is a certain level of maturity involved in this level of coursework. I tell students that if they can't dissect, then they should reconsider their career decision." I was appalled, angry, and dismayed by her inconsiderate and ignorant response. She knew nothing of me, and clearly not my mature and deep commitment to my education and future career in the field of healthcare.

The dean of the department told my instructor that it was up to the individual instructor's discretion on how to handle these issues. He pretended to compromise with the 'look but don't touch' suggestion, which I rejected. I told him I would withdraw from the class, and he suggested I withdraw from the school. To one that could accommodate my needs. I then realized I had a large hill to climb if I wanted to do the course at this college. With tears in my eyes, I saw my entire academic year and career plans about to slip away.

But I resolved to pursue an alternative here and to refuse to let this archaic system impede upon my value system. Moreover, my financial situation meant that I couldn't move to another college now. So I went to the Women's Resource Center on campus, a supportive and pro-active group, and planned my moves. Firstly I talked to my peers. Did they know that this was going on? Did they believe that dissection was the only way? Overwhelmingly they were with the alternatives. Many said they were disgusted with animal use for human anatomy and physiology teaching but conformed because the courses were mandatory for their degrees. Secondly, I refreshed my knowledge on animal rights and called on the support of PETA (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) and the HSUS (Humane Society of the United States) who promptly provided resources to help me.

I used the PETA outline on implementing a student choice policy, and a list of medical schools that use no animals, compiled by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM). The process was quite straightforward from there. I sent official letters to the relevant deans, respectfully requesting a formal Alternative to Dissection Student Choice Policy and to be kept informed as an alternative program was implemented. I told them that because of my, "sincerely held religious and moral beliefs about the sanctity of life" I was unable to participate in any non-human animal dissection practices. They replied with curt letters saying they would look into it, and good luck with my academic pursuits. The Dean of the Science Department mentioned that a faculty committee had been formed to look into this issue, and with my experience in the similar realm of the Student Senate, I requested to be a student representative. He thought this would not be appropriate but said he would discuss it with the committee and let me know. In fact he did not inform the committee and I never heard from any member of it.

The Affirmative Action Office on campus also chose not to address the case, and just passed it on to another dean, higher up the chain of command like any bureaucracy. Before climbing this myself I approached the student government, working with the Student Body President to lobby the Student Senate until they formally resolved to ask the faculty and administration to implement an official Student Choice Policy. This policy would allow a student the unfettered right to request and get an alternative to non-human animal dissection without any retribution or penalty. The vote was passed 9 to 1. The resolution was formally drafted and signed by the Senators and then published in the college newspaper.

Apparently, many students felt threatened by my campaign. Some liked dissection, others suggested that we best not challenge the status quo - after all didn't our instructors know best how to teach this material? But the Student Choice Policy wasn't demanding an end to all dissections. It may be a step along the path towards abolition, but I felt that bringing in the topic of this perhaps unattainable goal would confuse the immediate issue. Many of the students against the policy were young and had rarely questioned authority before. And anyway, they could continue with their rat dissections. What the policy did ensure was that students with moral and spiritual objections to this practice would not be coerced into dissection, and that they be offered an alternative. I argued for respect of diversity (a popular approach at the moment), and that it was wrong not to honour another person's morals and spirituality. Of course I sometimes added that I am also a taxpayer who contributes to a public institution, and additionally a dissatisfied consumer of public education.

I created a space for a petition in a busy area of the campus, and here showed the rat dissection video from the HSUS Alternatives Loan System and gave out relevant information. The stall lasted for 6 months and I gathered almost 300 signatures, which was significant.

The Student Body President began negotiations with the faculty and administration, and made comprehensive packets of information for all the deans. Student attendance on the faculty committee was declined, due to the 'difficult issues' of academic freedom and curriculum, but she successfully arranged and attended an official meeting

The Executive Dean was quite polite and receptive towards me. She wanted to assess me and my integrity and intentions, and to see if I was the stereotype of the animal rights activist. Of course, I was able to demonstrate otherwise: I had my arguments well prepared and I was articulate. I was not emotional and I kept cool and calm. I was dressed professionally and had supportive documentation with me. I had copies of the letters that I had sent and received back from the Deans, and the signed petitions. I knew the information and presented my story and myself very matter-of-factly.

The meeting lasted two hours. Both deans talked to me as if I was the only person in the world who had problems with dissection - a technique used to minimise the overall issue. I kept bringing the bigger picture back into the light: I knew national facts and figures; I talked about the message of disrespect for life that this kind of education sends to students. And with both deans being women, I tied together the issues of non-human animal oppression and the oppression of women to better demonstrate my points. I avoided the argument of dissection being bad science, as I am not a scientist and didn't feel confident enough to defeat their responses. They asked me if I would pay more money to use the more costly human body parts, and I rejected this absolutely on the grounds that I was already a taxpayer and on top of this was now being penalised for my spiritual beliefs.

Finally she asked me what would be the one main point that I wanted her to hear the most. I told her not to take it as a threat, but that if it weren't me, eventually someone would sue the school for intimidating and compromising students' religious rights. I explained that the political climate was such that in cases which end up in public battles and in court, the judicial and legislative systems were both leaning toward the side of the alternative. In one case a student had won $95 000 damages from her university. The college would lose a lot of money and it would be easier for everyone if they implemented an official Student Choice Policy. If I didn't get the resolution I wanted I would take the issue to a higher level and the media. Essentially I told her that I wasn't stopping until I got a formal policy installed. Within one month it was installed.

The wording of the policy adopted by the faculty committee was not exactly what I had written, but the crucial elements were included: "We respect the fact that our diverse students have different religious, moral, and spiritual beliefs and understand that these beliefs affect their opinions regarding the ethics of animal dissection in the classroom... We will work with students with objections to animal dissection in a co-operative effort to provide mutually acceptable alternatives to animal dissection."

Overall, I am quite satisfied. The next student who voices their objection to animal dissection can complete their coursework successfully. I will have to do more work at my next stage of anatomy and physiology because of the delays, but I have to move on. I would like to see the end of dissection practices altogether but it will not come in one swoop. The method is deeply ingrained in the scientific community. The new policy in Portland, however, is a step in the right direction. With other students doing their bit at their colleges, we can continue to add to those which have moved towards the light, towards humane education.