University Shuts Down Department After Doctor Takes Stance Against Fetal Tissue Practices

University, Minnesota,
University of Minnesota entrance. Image by Wikimedia Commons user AlexiusHoratius. []

St. Paul – Lawmakers are questioning the University of Minnesota’s motives for shutting down a department within the School of Public Health after one of its members took a stand against University practices by submitting a letter to a legislative hearing.  

On March 31, 2016, Dr. Steven Calvin, a member of the Program in Human Rights and Health (PHRH), sent a letter to the House Human Services Finance Committee expressing his concerns regarding fetal tissue research at the University.  

Dr. Calvin’s letter was in support of a bill sponsored by Representative Abigail Whelan (R – 35A), which would have provided the University with one million dollars to create a research center that would only do fetal tissue research on fetuses that “died of natural causes.”  Representative Whelan pushed for the legislation after learning from an Alpha News investigation that the University of Minnesota was performing research on aborted fetuses, despite stating they did not use such practices.

Dr. Calvin’s letter states, “The issue addressed by this bill is vitally important. Based on recent revelations, the integrity of the University has come into question and there is a need for the University to rebuild trust with the people of Minnesota.”  The letter goes on to say, “The core issue is the University’s failure to adhere to state law by purchasing and doing research on fetal tissue obtained by elective abortion.  It is very concerning that these revelations followed an initial denial of the facts by representatives of the University.”

On June 8th, Dean John Finnegan, Head of the School of Public Health, sent a letter to PHRH program director Dr. Kirk Allison, stating that the PRHR will be closed August 15th.  “We were really shocked,” Dr. Calvin tells Alpha News, “there was no prior discussion.”  

Now some within the state legislature are questioning the timing of events.

Republican Representatives Matt Dean (38B), Bud Nornes (8A), Peggy Scott (35B), Kathy Lohmer (39B), Cindy Pugh (33B), Tim Miller (17A) and Abigail Whelan (35A) signed on to a letter sent to University President Eric Kaler and the Board of Regents, asking for an explanation for shutting down the department and urging the University to “save and support” the PHRH program.  

“The closing of the PHRH under these circumstances sends a disturbing signal to all in the university community who wish to exercise the rights of free speech” they say in the letter, adding, “Given the controversy surrounding the University’s handling of bioethics in the last year, it seems counterproductive for the University to step away from a program that seeks to promote ethical decision making in the realm of human rights.”

In a written response, Dean Finnegan states there was no political motive behind shutting down the department, saying, “others have been stating to some that this decision was made for ‘political’ reasons.  Let me assure you at the outset that this is wrong.”  Finnegan says the decision was made “solely for financial reasons.”  Finnegan explains, “In looking at the Program’s finances, the cost of housing Dr. Allison and his activities required a School subsidy of about $190,000 total from 2007-2016. His teaching generated $735,000. Total costs of housing the Program during the same period totaled $925,000, hence the gap (revenue minus expenses).”

“I didn’t know everything at the University had to make a profit,” says Representative Miller, going on to say, “especially the work as important as he (Dr. Calvin) is doing.”

Miller, who says he isn’t done asking the University questions, says, “For them to send a letter and say it’s one big misunderstanding, I just don’t respect that response.  Even if it’s a completely factual statement, they handled this poorly.  It’s chilling because as soon as someone speaks up against the U, their office gets closed.”

The PHRH website, which was live until Thursday morning, said the program has “a focus on the vulnerable,” stating, “The program strives to look at the risks and burdens that technologies, procedures, and policies impose on the vulnerable and examines whose interests are served.”

Miller says lawmakers intend to follow up with the University in the near future.

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Letter to UMN from Republican lawmakers

Dean Finnegan Response to Lawmakers

Julia Erynn