The Chronicle of Higher Education is a superbly produced weekly newspaper, indispensable to anyone who wants to keep track of what's happening in the academic world. It is also, alas, an all-too predictable retailer of Received Opinion, faithfully passing on the unexamined prejudices that dominate our universities.

A case in point is Peter Schmidt's cover story for the April 6 issue: "A Clash of Values: Fetal-tissue conflict in Nebraska illustrates the vulnerability of researchers to politics." Here is the opening of the article, datelined Lincoln, Nebraska:

The University of Nebraska is complicit in the killing of innocent children. Of that much, the crowd gathered inside the state Capitol seems certain.

They concluded as much after learning that the university's medical center, in Omaha, has been using tissue from aborted fetuses in its research.

Most of them view the practice as an abomination, and stopping it as God's work.

They number about 60. Their ranks include a nun, a contingent of primly dressed retirees, and several mothers with young children in tow. They are people who do not have to be at work on a Friday morning—well-positioned to devote time to a cause.

Primly dressed, are they? Obviously they are fools, then. And with nothing better to do on a Friday morning!

Thought experiment: Suppose Peter Schmidt had sat down at his computer and typed out similar sentences about demonstrators against police brutality in Cincinnati, noting their sloppy, shiftless dress and the fact that they evidently didn't have to be at work and hence were "well-positioned to devote time to a cause"? Would such sentences have passed editorial scrutiny at the Chronicle? And in the event (well nigh unimaginable) that such a description did appear in print, what sort of reaction could the Chronicle expect? How long would it take before a groveling public apology was issued?

Schmidt's opening is but the first move in a masterpiece of complacent bias and moral confusion. Consider to begin with the framing opposition between "science" and "politics." Suppose instead of fetal-tissue research we were talking about the notorious Tuskegee Syphilis Study, a study in "untreated syphilis in the Negro male" begun in 1932 and conducted by the U.S. Public Health Service for four decades. Would the moral objections that were finally raised against this grotesque abuse of "science" fall under the heading of "politics" as well?

Consider further Schmidt's idealized treatment of "award-winning neuroscientist, Howard E. Gendelman," who is overseeing the fetal-tissue studies at the University of Nebraska's Center for Neurovirology and Neurodegenerative Disease. Schmidt goes to great lengths to paint Gendelman as morally sensitive. "One of the toughest moral questions that Dr. Gendelman still faces," Schmidt writes, "is one of complicity: In accepting fetal tissue from elective abortions, do he and his colleagues bear any moral responsibility for the procedures being done?"

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Given the way opponents of the fetal-tissue research are ridiculed by Schmidt, we might expect that this was an easy call for the good Dr. Gendelman. Not at all: "That is something we have thought about, and thought about, and rethought about," Gendelman says. Moreover, we're told, "as an Orthodox Jew, he turned to rabbis for counsel." But if Gendelman arrived at the conviction that the research is justified only after a good deal of agonizing, isn't the opposition of those primly dressed retirees, that nun, and the rest of the Friday morning crowd quite understandable?

In his further efforts to underscore Gendelman's moral sensitivity, Schmidt succeeds only in revealing the scientist's moral incoherence. "When moral and ethical questions arise, Dr. Gendelman says, he tries to keep in mind that [the center's] employees come from a variety of religious backgrounds, including Buddhism and Islam. His principle in dealing with those who morally object to certain types of work is: 'Everyone needs to be respected for their own beliefs.' " He adds that those who object to the research don't have to avail themselves of its benefits, and no one is forcing them to come and work in his lab: "They don't have to be involved in any way" (except via their tax dollars, a rather important omission).

So suppose that instead of fetal-tissue research, the lab was conducting research into therapies intended to turn homosexuals into heterosexuals. Naturally, given their "backgrounds," some people would object. Dr. Gendelman would deeply respect their "beliefs" and would not compel them to be "involved in any way" in his research. So what's the problem? After all, as Samuel M. Cohen, chairman of the medical center's department of pathology and microbiology, observes, "If a majority gets to decide what gets investigated and what does not, then we are back in the Middle Ages."

At that stroke, evidently, we are to imagine Schmidt's readers wiping their brows with relief. Whew! We're so thankful we're not back in the dreadful darkness of the Middle Ages, when people blindly followed authority! What a blessing to be alive in such an enlightened age as ours. Now when can expect the next shipment of fetal tissue?

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John Wilson is editor of Books & Culture and editor-at-large for Christianity Today.

Related Elsewhere

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"A Clash of Values," from the April 6 issue of The Chronicle of Higher Education, is only available to Chronicle subscribers.

See our earlier articles on fetal-tissue research:

Tissue of Lies? | Latest stem-cell research shows no urgent need to destroy human embryos for the cause of science. (Sept. 28, 2000)

Beyond the Impasse to What? | Stem-cell research may not need human embryos after all. But why are we researching in the first place? (Aug. 18, 2000)

Editorial: Thus Spoke Superman | Troubling language frames the stem-cell debate. (June 13, 2000)

Human Commodities | The grisly business of trafficking in fetal body parts may soon face Congressional hearings" (Mar. 7, 2000).

Congress Hears Testimony on Fetal Tissue | Witness's credibility damaged by pseudonymous video. (Mar. 30, 2000)

New Stem-Cell Research Guidelines Criticized | NIH guidelines skirt ethical issues about embryo destruction, charge bioethicists (Jan. 28, 2000)

Human Embryo Research Resisted (August 9, 1999)

Embryo Research Contested (May 24, 1999)

Editorial: The Biotech Temptation | Research on human embryos holds great promise, but at what price? (July 12, 1999)

The Web site for Trinity's Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity includes several areas on stem-cell research and a daily bioethics Weblog.

In 1999, The New York Times looked at the religious aspects of the debate over human stem cell research.

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