Proposed bill retains $14M in U funding

If passed, it would withhold funds unless the school creates a fetal tissue research center.

Kevin Beckman

The University of Minnesota could lose out on millions of state dollars due to concerns raised about the school’s use of fetal tissue for research.
Under a bill introduced last month, the state could withhold $14 million in funds meant for the University’s Medical School unless the school establishes a research center to oversee its use of fetal tissue, which would have to come from fetuses that died of natural causes. 
Though questions linger about the legality of the University’s past fetal tissue research, some lawmakers are concerned that the bill was introduced because of the author’s personal ethical and moral beliefs. 
“The bill … is about punishing the University of Minnesota for an individual’s political ideology,” said Rep. Erin Murphy, DFL-St. Paul, who is also a nurse. “We should be investing more and not less in that work. … We should not be putting barriers in place that will undermine our ability to achieve what we don’t yet understand.”
University fetal tissue research came under scrutiny after the University mistakenly denied, then confirmed, that research using aborted fetal tissue occurred at the school.  Following the controversy, the Minnesota Legislative Auditor agreed to conduct a review of the University’s fetal tissue research. 
At a recent House higher education committee meeting, Dr. Brooks Jackson, dean of the Medical School, said the University did not deliberately try to mislead legislators on its use of fetal tissue. 
“You have to remember that we have some 2,000 faculty engaged in biomedical sciences at the Academic Health Center,” he said. “We didn’t have a registry of people who had been using fetal tissue.”
The University opposes the measure, saying it could stifle research and threaten the school’s autonomy. 
“I think any legislation like this definitely does raise concerns about our constitutional autonomy,” said University President Eric Kaler, adding that if passed, the legislation would mark a “dramatic regressive step backwards” for University research.
The bill would also prohibit the University from purchasing tissue that isn’t the result from the natural death of a fetus. 
At the House meeting last week, the bill’s chief author, Rep. Abigail Whelan, R-Anoka, said  although she thinks research at the University is important, she has concerns about the morality, value and legality of its work with fetal tissue. 
“Regardless of one’s personal convictions on elective abortion, there are major legal, ethical and public policy problems with the University’s use of the organs of aborted fetuses in research,” said Dr. Steve Calvin at the committee meeting, where he testified on behalf of Whelan’s proposal. Calvin is a local obstetrician-gynecologist and co-chair of the Program in Human Rights and Health at the University’s School of Public Health.
If passed, the withheld funds would be part of a $30 million allocation from the Legislature appropriated last year to help support the University’s Medical School. Under the bill, $15 million in allocations would be eliminated for fiscal year 2017, of which $1 million would be used to fund the fetal tissue research review center. 
The remaining $14 million would be given back to the University in fiscal year 2018 if the center is established. 
Following concerns about the legality of its practices, an internal and external review determined that the University followed state and federal laws with its use of fetal tissue, said Dan Gilchrist, communications director for the Office of the Vice President for Research. 
The bill has 21 Republican sponsors and no DFL sponsors. There isn’t a companion bill in the Senate.