MU study on abortion prompts questions, challenges

The University of Missouri says it isn't violating state law or its conflict of interest policy in regards to a study on the effect of the 72-hour waiting period for abortion in Missouri. But several critics have questioned that line of thinking.

Earlier this week, Sen. Kurt Schaefer, R-Columbia, chair of the Senate interim committee on the Sanctity of Life, wrote to MU chancellor R. Bowen Loftin to express concerns about the study, which is being conducted by an MU social work student who also is a Planned Parenthood employee. The study outline claims to "help Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri improve its services to better meet the needs of women seeking abortions."

Schaefer said that the university is violating state law that prohibits public funds, public employees and public facilities to be used to perform or assist in abortion or for "encouraging or counseling a woman to have an abortion not necessary to save her life."

"It is difficult to understand how a research study approved by the university, conducted by a university student and overseen by the director of the School of Social Work at the university can be perceived as anything but an expenditure of public funds to aid Planned Parenthood," Schaefer wrote. "This study does not appear to be designed as an objective, unbiased research project, but rather as a marketing aid for Planned Parenthood."

According to MU spokeswoman Mary Jo Banken, that the university's administration complies with all state and federal laws.

"We also are committed to the fundamental principle on which all of this nation's land-grant, public universities are founded — that is academic freedom, or the right of teachers and students to express their ideas in the classroom or in writing, free from political, religious, or institutional restrictions, even if these ideas are unpopular," she said.

Banken also said the university's conflict of interest policy only applies to university employees who may be engaged in employment or activities outside of their regular duties as a university employee. Though employed at Planned Parenthood, the student conducting the survey isn't a university employee and doesn't receive any MU scholarships or grant money for the research.

However, Marjorie Sable, director of the School of Social Work, is the student's adviser. Deacon Sam Lee, a pro-life lobbyist with Campaign Life Missouri, said that is a clear conflict of interest. The spirit of the policy also is clear: a university project shouldn't result in a financial benefit to the agency that employs the researcher.

"Whether this is violating the law or the policy of the university, it's still wrong," Deacon Lee said. "They should not be promoting abortions in any way, shape or form. It's immoral and a disservice to the taxpayers as well as a disservice to students that attend the university, let alone the women who are undergoing a difficult pregnancy and need a compassionate voice to help them make the right decision for life, themselves and their unborn child."

Deacon Lee asked why the study doesn't include information from pregnancy resource centers and other alternatives to abortion services that would see the effects of the 72-hour waiting period.

"That puts Planned Parenthood at a competitive advantage over those agencies that provide alternatives to abortion — agencies which benefit in having a woman be given more time to reflect on an abortion decision," Deacon Lee. "Taxpayers should not be forced to fund that."

Reagan Nielsen, Midwest regional coordinator for Students for Life of America and a Mizzou alum, said she's frustrated that "Mizzou continues to have a part in the abortion industry and is angling a study to show the bad things that come of this waiting period to make it seem more like a burden on women." 

The university has the right to approve research conducted by its students that tackle controversial topics, including the impact of the new law requiring a 72-hour waiting period before an abortion, said Mike Hoey, executive director of the Missouri Catholic Conference, the public policy arm of the state's bishops.

"It is unfortunate, however, that no one considered the conflict of interest that would naturally arise by having a student who is also an employee of Planned Parenthood conduct this particular research," said Hoey. "One would expect the student's academic advisor to recognize the conflict of interest and steer the student to a different topic. However, the adviser is herself a member of the board of Planned Parenthood of Kansas and Mid-Missouri.

Before approving future research projects, the university should consider potential conflicts of interest, especially when the research proposed is to be conducted by the industry under study, said Hoey. "Just because MU has the right to approve research, doesn't mean it has to exercise this right on every research proposal." 

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