Nebraska faculty: stopping fetal research threatens academic freedom
LINCOLN, Neb. - Members of University of Nebraska's faculty are scared of the effects stopping research on fetal tissue at the university's medical center may have on academic freedom.
In a letter sent Friday to the governor, the attorney general and the speaker of the unicameral, 10 members of the faculty chided officials for threatening budget cuts if the university did not discontinue the research.
"It is a dangerous exercise of political power to threaten the whole university or any one of its sites with punitive budget cuts based on such volatile issues as are present in this case," wrote English Professor James McShane on behalf of nine other faculty members - all winners of the James A. Lake Academic Freedom Award.
McShane wrote the letter in response to threats last week by state senators to cut university funding after it was reported in the Omaha World-Herald that the University of Nebraska Medical Center performed Alzheimer's disease research on aborted fetal tissue.
McShane said he defends the university for the research it does.
"The last time I heard, abortion was legal," he said. "The University of Nebraska has a board to determine what is ethical and so does the federal government."
In his letter, McShane stated that the research in question is funded by some of the nation's most distinguished institutions.
Stopping research done by the medical center would lead to a climate that inhibits research at the university, McShane said.
The only official to respond to the letter on Friday was Attorney General Don Stenberg.
Stenberg included a detailed explanation of partial birth abortion, taken from Dr. Leroy Carhart, the doctor who provides UNMC with the fetal tissue.
Stenberg also raised questions about academic freedom to McShane and the other professors.
One of the questions was:
"Since the university is concerned that fetal tissue not go to waste, would academic freedom support an animal nutrition study in which human fetuses were made into dog food and its nutritional value studied (with the consent of the mothers of the fetuses)?" Stenberg wrote.
McShane pointed out that the medical center didn't use cells from partial birth abortions in its research.
On Friday, William Berndt, UNMC vice chancellor for academic affairs, said the medical center has never used tissue from partial birth abortions.
Because he didn't receive Stenberg's letter as of Sunday, McShane would not comment on it.
Mary Beck, another winner of the academic freedom award, said concerns about inhibiting academic freedom exist at the university.
"It would be difficult for me to see how anyone who believes in the bigger mission of academics would condemn academic freedom as this would," Beck said.
James Cole, a psychology professor emeritus and winner of the award, said he faced a similar situation in the 1970s at Nebraska. The state Legislature threatened to cut funding to the university if it didn't ban human sexuality classes and fire the faculty associated with them, Cole said.
Cole won the academic freedom award for fighting the legislature's decision.
"This is a typical reaction," Cole said. "When politicians don't like an idea, they threaten to intervene."
In related news, UNMC officials announced on Friday that they would seek fetal cells from other sources to do their research.
Cells from spontaneous abortions, ectopic pregnancies and stillbirths will be used when possible, officials said. But because of the limited availability, aborted fetuses would still be used, they said.