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November 19, 2009
When University of Nebraska regents tomorrow consider a proposal to restrict embryonic stem cell research at the University’s Medical Center, the university’s mission and reputation will be fundamentally important issues which will demand attention.
If four of the eight regents are successful in their effort to restrict medical research (they will need to pick up a fifth vote from some other member of the eight-member board), the predictable result would be substantial damage to the University’s increasingly successful effort to establish itself as an institution which has national stature as both a teaching and a research institution.
If the image of the University of Nebraska projected nationwide is that of a school whose research policy is based on religion and the not-generally-accepted moral and ethical standards of individual members of its governing body—if that national image results from a research-restricting decision by the board of regents, the university runs the risk of not only damage to reputation but increased difficulty in attracting researchers and even the possible loss of researchers currently on the faculty.
The University of Iowa learned this lesson the hard way when a team of medical researchers, faced with the kinds of restrictions being proposed by four members of the University of Nebraska Board of Regents, left for another institution.
A new strategy is being pursued by those who would impose their personal religious, moral and/or ethical standards on UNMC researchers. Their argument of choice today is that scientists are making rapid progress in developing new research material which is as good as, or better than, the embryonic stem cell material available under the Obama administration’s policy of widening the embryonic lines for which research will be financed with federal grants.
But a news story reporting on the non-embryonic stem cell research included such words as “eventually” and “progress toward” and “the time may come.”
A UNMC researcher, Dr. Angie Rizzino, expresses a very rational, non-emotional position. The time may arrive, Dr. Rizzino says, when the new research strategy makes human embryonic stem cell research unnecessary. But for now, he said, research on all fronts should continue in order to improve the understanding of how cells function and how diseases start.
It seems to me that to make a religious or moral or ethical issue of the research use of embryonic stem cells which sit, frozen, in fertility clinics all over the country, one has to accept the belief that a person with a soul is created at the instant of conception, whether through sexual intercourse or in a fertility clinic.
There is simply no evidence—none—that this belief is held by a majority of Nebraskans, who, in effect, own the state university’s whose research role and reputation are at stake here.
I’m quite sure that I am not the only Nebraskan who resents the implication that what is involved is entirely an ethical or moral issue and that all the moral and high ethical standards are on the side of those who would restrict research. It seems to me to be an insult to imply that those who disagree are immoral or unethical if they do not embrace the concept that a person, with a soul, is created at the instant of conception in fertility clinics.
Those who claim for themselves the moral highroad in this controversy might well consider something that I drafted for my column several years ago. I wrote then:
“I reject the implication that religion-first believers are best qualified to bring moral standards to bear on public issues. The fact that moral standards are not absolute verities laid down by ecclesiastical authority was demonstrated, I think, by a letter written to then-Governor Mike Johanns, a Catholic, after the governor said he was going to use his ‘bully pulpit’ to express opposition to fetal tissue use in Medical Center research.
“The writer pointed out that she was born and raised in South Omaha, ‘the product of a traditional Irish-Catholic family and traditional Catholic schools,’ adding that her husband was also educated in Catholic schools and colleges, adding further, ‘We are opposed to abortion.’ The letter to Governor Johanns continued:
“’We are, however, able to distinguish the fetal-tissue controversy from our strongly-held beliefs on abortion. The UNMC research using fetal tissue in no way encourages abortions…
“’UNMC is an academic institution dedicated to training our future medical practitioners as well as an institution engaged in important medical research. I suspect that most of us have been touched by friends or family members who suffer from multiple sclerosis, Alzheimer’s and other neurological diseases…
“’To deny UNMC the freedom to engage in medical research by somehow characterizing this vital research as a form of pro-choice activity is ludicrous, highly inflammatory and an effort to politicize the process. In fact, one could argue that to waste this tissue by not using this tissue for the greater good would be sinful.’
“Amen to those sensible sentiments.”
* * *
As I read a column by Charles M. Blow on The New York Times opinion pages, it occurred to me that it would have been appropriate if The Times had been able to publish the column on tear-stained newsprint.
My point, of course, is that The Times columnist was quite obviously unhappy with the facts that he somehow felt compelled to share with Times readers.
Take the statement by Rep. Eric Cantor, the House Republican whip, after Republican victories in gubernatorial races in New Jersey and Virginia: “The Republican resurgence begins!”
Columnist Blow’s reaction: “Unfortunately, he’s probably right…they are likely to make significant gains, not because of their…tenets, but because of historical patterns and an electorate exasperated with seeing Democratic ineptitude.”
Further evidence of columnist Blow’s figurative tear-shedding was his reaction to a recent Gallup poll which showed Republicans moving ahead of Democrats, 48% to 44%, in a projection of 2010 Congressional election results. Blow wrote:
“The most striking finding in the poll was the margin for Republicans among Independents. It grew from one percentage point in July to 22 percentage points in November. This is important because according to the recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal Survey, Independents are now nearly as large a group as Democrats and Republicans combined.”
The Times columnist views the current national political scene as being marked by “the Republicans’ surprisingly effective obstructionist strategy, a Democratic caucus riddled with conservative sympathizers and a president encircled by crises and crippled by caution.”
So from this particular liberal’s perspective, opposition to a political opponent, especially if he is a Democrat, is “obstructionist” and a Democratic majority in Congress shouldn’t include any conservatives.
No wonder that recent polls showed that only approximately 20% of the poll respondents consider themselves to be liberals.
* * *
I wouldn’t single out Omaha firefighters for special criticism because of their misuse of the paid sick leave option—negotiated by labor unions in many instances—for workers to be paid for a specified number of sick leave days each year, whether they use those days or not.
The fireman’s union—and the city officials involved—can fairly be criticized for the negotiating disaster which has helped put the city in something close to a $500 million unfounded pension liability hole.
But the fireman have a great deal of company in taking advantage of a policy which specifies that if the employee doesn’t use all the days of sick leave to which he would be entitled, he is reimbursed for the unused days—a sort of bribe to keep the employee from lying by calling in sick when what he really wants is a paid day off.
A much more sensible policy would be to provide for a certain number of paid “sick leave” days and require a statement, under some kind of penalty for lying, from an employee, swearing that he or she was truly sick when one of the days was used, with a description of the ailment included in the sworn statement.If at the end of some specified time period the employees have not used all their paid “sick leave days,” send a note thanking them for their honesty for not using paid sick leave days when they really aren’t sick. Both parties should feel better about not bribing employees to be honest.
* * *
Since I saw my first Nebraska Cornhusker game on Thanksgiving Day in 1933 (the Huskers beat Oregon State 22-0), I have seen some 350 Husker games over the ensuing 76 years, I feel comfortable with offering occasional public comment on the Huskers’ current performance. (After all, it’s a game anyone can play, and almost everybody in Nebraska does.) A current comment:
I-Back Roy Helu, Jr. is a fine young man and a very good running back when he gets the blocking to open the door for him to use his speed and open field elusiveness. (A battering ram he is not.)
To me, the most encouraging aspect of Helu’s improving performance is that it represents a change in Husker offensive strategy, with more emphasis on blocking by tight ends and the fullback. With the defense getting proper credit for superior performance, it’s gratifying to see some of the hardworking members of the offense getting some post-game credit, too.
Dramatic pictorial evidence of the increased effectiveness of the Husker running game was a World-Herald photograph taken from behind the end zone during Helu’s final touchdown run against KU last Saturday.
The picture showed a hole so big that it might have accommodated part of the army of news media coach/commentators/critics who follow and lecture the Huskers. (Although there is a good chance, I believe, that at least one of that army would have tried to find fault, asking something like, “Why didn’t we get blocking like this sooner?”)
* * *
As a final touch today, let me dip into a collection of cartoons by one of the greats, Charles Barsotti, whose work first appeared in the Saturday Evening Post and became a feature of The New Yorker.
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