Opinion | Pro-Life Representatives may be the reason thousands of students can’t afford Pitt

By Ebonee Rice-Nguyen, Staff Columnist

After an initial draft majority opinion overturning Roe v. Wade was leaked, millions of Americans experienced stages of grief and fear. While the implications of overruling Roe v. Wade are frightening, the anti-abortion movement’s initiatives are not just limited to the control of people’s bodies. Anti-abortion sentiment has become an active way to disenfranchise communities with less money. This political method has even reached the University of Pittsburgh. Pro-life sentiment among PA state House representatives has the potential to end in-state tuition discounts for thousands of students at Pitt.

Representatives advocating for voucher programs have scrutinized the University of Pittsburgh’s funding for years, but concerns are mounting as Pittsburgh’s multi-million dollar appropriation from the state is under attack from House Republicans. One of the main factors driving GOP hostility is the concern that Pitt researchers are using fetal tissue for scientific research. This discourse has the potential to end tuition breaks for in-state students, excluding many students from achieving a secondary education.

As the attack on Roe v. Wade has become the forefront of the GOP’s party ticket, the University has received criticism locally and nationwide from Republican representatives. Many anti-abortion acitivsts accused Pitt of participating in illegal activities regarding the use of fetal tissue in medical research. 

The use of fetal tissue in medical research dates back to the 1930s. Fetal tissue is essential for medical research because as of now, there are no alternatives that provide the same accuracy in research. By law, all fetal tissue donations are voluntary. Informed consent is required for fetal tissue to be collected and provided to researchers. Pitt is not the only school that uses fetal tissue — many of the nation’s leading medical universities use fetal tissue for research. Despite these facts, the University received heavy backlash from GOP representatives and pro-life advocates.

In 2021, Republican state representative Kathy Rapp requested an auditorial general review of the University’s state and federal funding. This request was a way for representatives to monitor Pitt’s research practices through a series of public hearings featuring university staff members and professors. 

“If these allegations are true that scientists at the University of Pittsburgh were harvesting kidneys of unborn babies while their hearts were still beating, they should not only have their taxpayer funding immediately suspended, everyone involved should face criminal charges,” tweeted Sean Parnell, another Pennsylvanian Republican representative.

Despite these claims, an outside investigation found that the school was “fully compliant with federal and state regulatory requirements” regarding its use of fetal tissue. 

“As we have stated in the past: Fetal tissue research plays a critical role in advancing life-saving discoveries. We remain committed to maintaining robust internal controls and to extending our record of compliance at the state and federal levels, and we take these responsibilities seriously,” a Pitt spokesperson told the University Times.

Despite these statements, right-wing media became fixated on the University. David Daleidan, an anti-abortion journalist, likened the National Institute of Health’s funding of Pitt programs as “an episode of American Horror Story.” Fox News covered a 2020 study where scientists altered rodents’ immune systems with fetal tissue and stem cells to further study skin infections in people. The right-wing media outlet described it as “an experiment involving grafting fetal scalps, containing ‘full-thickness human skin,’ onto rodents.” There was even a blog post claiming that Pitt had “an illegal Quid-Pro-Quo” arrangement with Planned Parenthood of Western Pennsylvania clinics to obtain specimens.

These accusations may seem comical, but they have real-world implications on all Pitt students. On June 30, Pennsylvania lawmakers will determine the 2022-23 budget and ultimately their support for the University of Pittsburgh’s state funding. Republican lawmakers are adamant that the state shouldn’t fund Pitt due to fetal tissue research. 

As of June 3, Republican congressmen once again have requested an audit into Pitt’s fetal tissue research. This time, representatives have directed their attack on UPMC’s role in Pitt’s research, as they believe the prior assessment “stopped short.” These audits could potentially sway representatives’ support for Pitt’s appropriation bill. 

If Pitt’s general appropriation bill is not passed, numerous students will no longer be able to afford the University’s tuition. In the fiscal year 2020-21, Pitt provided Pennsylvanian students $284 million in tuition discounts. The state’s appropriation accounted for around 60 percent of that discount. 

“This funding supports a significant tuition discount for Pennsylvanians that saves each Pitt student about $60,000 over the course of their undergraduate career,” said David Brown, Pitt’s new vice chancellor for government relations and advocacy, to the University Times. “Unfortunately, this year more than ever, Pennsylvania’s students and families are facing a very real risk of losing their tuition discount.” 

This tuition discount is a life-changing benefit for many Pennsylvanian families and students. In many cases, it is the only factor that makes Pitt affordable. The fact the bill is at risk due to anti-abortion sentiment among state representatives is an indication of how backward the pro-life movement has become. 

When the draft opinion in the case of Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization was leaked, there was an immediate outcry that the decision to overturn Roe v. Wade would affect poor women the most. As the debate around Pitt’s funding grows, we are witnessing how the anti-abortion movement not only disenfranchises the bodies of low-income women but also disenfranchises all low-income Americans. By cutting Pitt’s funding under the cover of the pro-life argument, state representatives exclude thousands of students with low-income backgrounds from higher education and ensure that college no longer functions as the great equalizer. 

The issue of Pitt’s funding shows the disconnect between the life-embracing rhetoric surrounding anti abortion and the cold indifference toward the fate of thousands of students. What we’re left facing is a group of conservative representatives ready to cut university funding in the name of protecting the unborn, even if that means altering the lives of the living, breathing, students who depend on that money for their futures.

Ebonee Rice-Nguyen writes primarily about political, social and cultural issues. Write to her at [email protected].