University of Colorado School of Medicine, Medicine
1991 - 1995

  In 1992 University of Colorado medical student Safia Rubaii's spiritual beliefs in the sanctity of all life prevented her from participating in some of the School of Medicine's first year physiology laboratories. In these labs students observed the effects on dogs of injecting them with various drugs before killing them, and performed experiments on body parts obtained from freshly killed frogs. Her offer to locate and pay for alternatives herself was rejected. Her refusal to participate in the labs resulted in her officially failing physiology, despite passing the written exams. She was consequently barred from the second year of her course.

 Safia then mounted a lawsuit against the University of Colorado in 1993, and in 1995 was awarded $95,000 in damages from the University. She also re-took the physiology course at the Creighton University School of Medicine in Nebraska, in which no harmful animal usage occurs, and passed it with honours, after which she was allowed to proceed to the second year of her course. As a condition of the legal settlement the University of Colorado was required to remove the original failing grade from Safia’s academic transcript, and was also required to provide an alternative for any student with “religious” objections to the labs (sincerely held beliefs that serve as guiding principles in one's life). By 1998 it had extended this to all conscientiously objecting students. Dr. Rubaii successfully graduated from the University in 1995.


McCaffrey, S., Autumn 1995, "A medical student stands up for compassion",

Good Medicine, pp. 6-9.

  As a first year medical student at the University of Colorado, Safia Rubaii probably never imagined that she would still be struggling with a basic physiology course long after she had graduated. But she also probably never imagined to what great lengths she would have to go to be granted an alternative to the required dog lab in the course and guarantee that other students would be afforded the same right.

 Safia entered medical school no stranger to the medical community, having been a nurse in obstetrics, critical care, and emergency medicine for many years. When she learned that laboratory exercises - one using dogs, another using frogs - were required parts of a first year physiology class, she knew that these labs were not essential to understand the basic concepts they demonstrated. Safia also felt that using animals in this fashion was morally and ethically wrong, mocking many of the personal beliefs that had contributed to her desire to become a doctor in the first place. In February of 1992 she asked the course director if she could perform an alternative to the labs, citing these reasons. She suggested using a videodisc or computer simulation that covered the same principles, and/or observing specific patients in the intensive care unit and charting their progress. She even offered to locate these patients herself, or pay for any expense that an alternative would incur.

 The University would not allow Safia any of these alternatives. If she did not participate in the labs, she would fail the course. The Dean did say that she could take a physiology course at another medical school during her summer vacation, and her transcript would reflect that she had "dropped" the course. Safia could not accept this arrangement because it prevented other students from learning of, and benefiting from, her efforts. She had been inspired by the accounts of students from other medical schools who had successfully pushed for an alternative to animal labs, and wanted the medical school to make a permanent change that would apply to all students, not just herself. When the labs came, her fellow students carried out the traditional exercises of injecting dogs with drugs, recording their effects on the heart, blood pressure, etc., and finally killing them with an overdose. They also used parts from recently-killed frogs. Safia did not participate.

 At the end of the physiology course, Safia achieved a final passing grade on the required written lecture and laboratory exams. Despite this, the promotions committee decided that she would be placed on academic probation and would not be promoted to the next grade level, because she did not participate in the animal labs. Safia appealed on the basis of her moral, ethical, and religious beliefs - founded in Buddhist principles that stress the sanctity of all life - but the decision was upheld.

 She then went to the dean and asked to take a physiology class at another school during her summer vacation so she could be promoted and have the failing grade taken off her transcript. The dean agreed, but said that her transcript would reflect that Safia had failed the original course. Safia would not accept this compromise, because it did not show that she had, in fact, completed the course at Colorado, minus the animal labs, and had passed the final exam.

 Unfortunately for Safia, Colorado is one of the very few medical schools in the country that makes participation in animal labs mandatory. Yet, as she learned later, the university had granted exemptions to several students in the past who opposed the labs on other the basis of spiritual beliefs, such as those held by Quakers and Buddhists. Furthermore, Colorado did not require transfer students who had taken, physiology without animal labs at another school to take the labs or repeat the course.

 Safia had no choice. In the spring of 1993, she sued the University of Colorado for the right to be granted an alternative to the dog lab. That summer, she completed with honors a physiology course at Creighton University School of Medicine in Omaha that did not include an animal lab. Creighton students are taught physiology primarily through lectures and readings, and can use computer simulations and a videotape of a cardiology dog lab on a completely optional basis. Safia transferred the credit to Colorado and was promoted, but her transcript still reflects the failure of the physiology course at Colorado, pending the outcome of the lawsuit.

 After completing her fourth year of medical school this spring, Safia began an internship in internal medicine in Colorado, to be followed by a residency in emergency medicine in Jacksonville, Florida. As part of her emergency medicine training, Safia recently completed the Advanced Trauma Life Support (ATLS) course at the University of Maryland in Baltimore, which has used cadavers to teach emergency medical procedures for several years, unlike most other ATLS courses, which still use dogs to teach these skills. Safia rated the Maryland course as excellent and, in fact, discovered that many of those attending had come specifically to learn emergency medical skills without having to practice on dogs.

 Hopefully, Safia's challenging experience at the University of Colorado will soon be resolved, and future students at this school will have the right to an alternative to the dog lab, as they have at nearly all other medical schools that still have such labs.

 In the future, with her internship and residency completed, Safia would like to practice emergency medicine, possibly working overseas to integrate her interest in cross-cultural studies. Wherever she ends up, her dedication, integrity, and expertise will no doubt be of tremendous benefit to the entire community.

 Happily, many medical schools no longer offer animal laboratory exercises in their curricula, and those that do nearly always make them optional. PCRM is always glad to help students. We have booklets of alternatives and other detailed information. Call 202-686-2210.

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