Kelley McCall / AP

Missouri state senator aims to block student's dissertation on abortion

Exclusive interview: Missouri doctoral student defends research on how state's required abortion wait affects women

University of Missouri doctoral student plans to continue research for her dissertation on the effects of the state’s recently imposed 72-hour waiting period for abortions, despite a state legislator’s push to block the research, the student told Al Jazeera in an exclusive interview.

“I stand by my research project,” Lindsay Ruhr said Wednesday. “I feel that my research is objective, and that the whole point of my research is to understand how this policy affects women. Whether this policy is having a harmful or beneficial effect, we don’t know.”

State Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Republican from Columbia, Missouri, who chairs the Missouri state senate’s interim Committee on the Sanctity of Life, sent a letter in late October to the University of Missouri calling Ruhr’s dissertation “a marketing aid for Planned Parenthood — one that is funded, in part or in whole, by taxpayer dollars,” according to a copy of the letter posted to HuffingtonPost.com. Schaefer called for the university to hand over documents regarding the project's approval and said that, because the University of Missouri is a public university, it should not fund research that he said would promote elective abortions. Missouri law prohibits the use of public funds to promote non-life-saving abortions. 

"We are still in the process of responding to Sen. Schaefer's request for documents," Mary Jenkins, public relations manager for University of Missouri Health, said Wednesday in an email. Schaefer did not respond to Al Jazeera's multiple interview requests.

Missouri in September 2014 enacted a 72-hour wait for abortions, becoming one of several states that have restricted access to the procedure — moves that reproductive rights advocates have called legal attempts to chip away at the rights established by the Supreme Court’s Roe v. Wade decision in 1973. Other legal restrictions, passed in Missouri and some other states, have required that women seeking an abortion undergo an ultrasound scan and receive informational material that abortion rights advocates say aims to dissuade women from undergoing the procedure.

Anti-abortion website LifeNews.com, in an article posted Tuesday, praised Schaefer for the letter objecting to Ruhr’s research, saying he had uncovered “fresh evidence of collaboration between the University of Missouri and the state’s leading abortion provider.”

Amid a national uproar over claims that Planned Parenthood sells fetal tissue, the university in September canceled 10 contracts with the organization. Planned Parenthood denies that it sells fetal tissue.

Planned Parenthood in Missouri has since become the subject of an investigation by Schaefer's committee, as it attempts to reveal entities breaking the ban on public funds promoting abortion for non-life-saving purposes.

But in October, the university signed agreements to have Planned Parenthood clinics train nursing students in women’s health care, local St. Louis Public Radio reported, prompting criticism from anti-abortion groups. 

Ruhr told Al Jazeera that the university has not made any attempt to stop her research. She is also employed by Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri as a research coordinator. 

A spokeswoman for the university (MU) expressed support for Ruhr’s academic freedom, but appeared to distance the school from the research.

“A doctoral student in the School of Social Work is completing research at Planned Parenthood as part of her dissertation,” university spokeswoman Mary Jo Banken told Al Jazeera. “She is employed at Planned Parenthood. She receives no scholarships from MU; nor is she the recipient of any grant money for this research.”

“Chancellor [R. Bowen] Loftin has and will continue to strongly support academic freedom and the intellectual property of MU’s students and faculty,” Banken said.

Ruhr confirmed that she has not received any grants or scholarship funds from the university. She said her research is supervised by faculty in the university’s school of social work, and she expects to complete her dissertation in April 2016.

Loftin announced Tuesday that he plans to step down from his role as chancellor following accusations from student activists that the university’s leadership did not do enough to address racial slurs and tension on campus.

Mary M. Kogut, the president and CEO of Advocates of Planned Parenthood of the St. Louis Region and Southwest Missouri, told Al Jazeera that research such as Ruhr's is important to understanding women's health.

"We thought the politicians looking at research of importance to Missouri's women was inappropriate," Kogut said.

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