After denying use of fetal tissue in research, the University of Minnesota is backpedaling, claiming the language used in past inquiries was unclear.
Documents obtained in October by Alpha News, a conservative-leaning online news source, unearthed University receipts of fetal tissue purchases, evidence contrary to what lawmakers say they asked about in July.
The school changed related research policies in response, after state legislators accused them of breaking the law in disposing fetal material.
University officials defending the practice said questions posed by legislators and journalists in July weren’t specific to fetal tissue research, causing the miscommunication.
At the time, the University mistakenly said it wasn’t conducting any research using fetal material, like embryonic cells.
“Once clarity came to the questions being asked, the University then provided the information as best as it could,” Vice President for Research Brian Herman said.
Rep. Gene Pelowski, DFL-Winona, said he felt the University shrugged off multiple inquiries by legislators.
“It just shows the arrogance of the University,” he said.
A Dec. 8 letter sent to the Board of Regents from more than two dozen legislators criticized the University’s response to their inquiries as “less than satisfactory.”
“We are still deeply concerned with these miscommunications and with the initially vague reply provided by legislators,” the letter read.
University may face legal issues
In response to the receipts’ release, the University turned over fetal tissue acquisition and disposal in October to the University’s Medical School Anatomical Bequest Program.
Under state law, an aborted or miscarried fetus can only be disposed of through burial, individual or group cremation or other methods approved by the state’s health department.
Legislators said in their December letter they believed the University violated the law by disposing of fetal remains as biohazard waste.
Despite concerns over whether the University acted legally, Regent Laura Brod said she feels the school responded appropriately by updating its policy.
“When you’re looking at these issues, you can’t be unclear,” Brod said.
Regents wrote to President Eric Kaler in October with concerns over the source of the University’s fetal tissue.
Aborted fetuses are prohibited from being donated for research in Minnesota, though federal laws allow for donations as long as the recipient isn’t profiteering from the
tissue outside of charges for things like transportation, processing and shipping.
The future of fetal research
Rep. Bud Nornes, R-Fergus Falls, said he would like to continue discussions with the University this upcoming session, in particular to demonstrate successful progress in research that uses fetal tissue.
“They should be able to point to something positive, otherwise maybe it’s not something you’d want to continue,” Nornes said.
Herman said research using fetal tissue could lead to breakthroughs in neurodegenerative diseases, Leukemia, HIV and AIDS.
Around five or six researchers at the University are currently using fetal tissue for research, he said.
“Unfortunately, there are not alternatives presently available,” Herman said. “We believe the research is important to do. Being able to do the research that’s being done will provide benefit to the health and well-being of our society.”
Still, legislators like Rep. Marion O’Neil, R-Maple Lake, argue controversy over the research’s moral implications outweighs any benefits.
“What was once in the shadows is just now coming to light,” she said. “When session reconvenes, I hope the Legislature will take a much closer look at this issue.”