Biology prof a deer in media headlights
Ted Vaden, Staff Writer
Two weeks ago, Albert Harris was a respected professor at UNC-Chapel Hill who labored in obscurity teaching biology to pre-med students. By most accounts, he did a pretty good job.
Then he wandered into the klieg light of media coverage, and his life hasn't been the same. His e-mail box is full of messages damning, some threatening, the 64-year-old prof. People are calling for him to be fired, and he says wealthy alumni are making unhappy noises to the university.
Harris' sin was to suggest to his embryology class on Feb. 11 that fetuses with Down syndrome should be aborted. At least one student was offended, a right-to-life organization swung into action, and the next thing he knew, Harris was the archetype for all arrogant professors jamming immorality into the impressionable minds of their captive classroom audiences.
The News & Observer wrote about Harris on Feb. 16, in a story headlined "Abortion remark angers students." It quoted Harris' lecture notes (posted on his class Web site) saying, "In my opinion, the moral thing for older mothers to do is to have amniocentesis, as soon during pregnancy as is safe for the fetus, test whether placental cells have a third chromosome #21 and abort the fetus if it does." The extra chromosome is associated with Down syndrome.
The reaction was swift and angry. The N&O invited readers to discuss the topic on a Web site forum, and more than 1,200 visited the site (compared with 135 on Castro's resignation). Comments accuse the professor of playing God and of promoting eugenics. "One has to wonder which chromosome was missing in Professor Albert Harris when he was born," said one commenter. "Perhaps it was the one called 'compassion.' For a tenured university professor to inject his liberal eugenic social philosophy in a class on embryology is unconscionable."
Many comments were from parents of Down syndrome children, understandably upset at the suggestion that their children shouldn't have been born.
Predictably, the story was picked up and distributed nationally by The Associated Press, and it spread to television, talk radio and the Internet. Harris told me he spent 14 hours replying to e-mails the Monday after the story appeared. He said the response was "massive, obscene, 'you should have been aborted,' demanding that I be dismissed." Harris is worried about his career, even though he's tenured. But he also said he was more concerned about the damage to the university than to him personally.
(Steve Matson, chair of the Biology Department, said there would be no sanctions. "I met with the (complaining) student this morning, and from her perspective and from my perspective, the issue has been resolved," he said Friday.)
Harris and his defenders contend that the coverage was unfair -- that his comment was taken out of context and that the N&O story gave disproportionate attention to a few -- one student out of a class of more than 100 complained. "I sat through that lecture and know that this reporter has not adequately represented the facts in this article," one student wrote in the comment forum.
Harris said that he has made similar remarks in his classes over 35 years and that the opinion is just that -- opinion -- offered not as doctrine but to stimulate discussion about moral issues related to embryology. He said he worries that his educational intention is set back by the publicity. "Somebody may agree with the extreme position attributed to me, when the whole purpose was to have a class discussion and have different points of view," he said.
Mark Schultz, the N&O editor who handled the story, defends the fairness of the coverage. He held the story for an extra day to allow it to be more fully reported, consulted with the paper's higher-education reporter for input and solicited comment from people who supported Harris. The story included quotes from three students in the class who did not find the comments inappropriate. It also included Harris' explanation that his purpose was to stimulate debate and quoted him as saying he wouldn't choose abortion if he and his wife faced that situation.
Schultz said he sometimes loses sleep worrying about whether a story has been fair, but not this one. "I feel great about the story," Schultz said. "We gave it extra time. We tried to get extra views. We had a lot of people supporting what he said as well as people who were offended."
I agree that the paper went to extra lengths to treat Harris fairly. There also was a sidebar by the N&O medical writer discussing prenatal testing for Down syndrome and pointing out that 90 percent of couples who get positive test results for Down syndrome end the pregnancies.
And yet ... I still have a nagging uneasiness about this story. It is a piece about a single remark in a lengthy lecture that, the professor says, was intended for discussion, not indoctrination. I have qualms about the headline "Abortion remark angers students," when only one student complained. Sam Spies, the reporter, said he found only one student in the class who objected to the comment, although at least one other has since voiced concern. On the first page of the article, the story reported only the offending quote and the criticism, saving explanation from Harris and his defenders for the "jump" page inside the paper.
And I'm concerned that perhaps the paper was manipulated by an interest group with an agenda. The N&O learned about the flap from a news release from Carolina Students for Life, a pro-life group on campus. It said, "This latest account follows several reports of professors intimidating students or teaching personal opinions as course curricula" -- which suggests to me a separate agenda. The story didn't tell us about the pro-life group's role, which it should have.
Harris made an insensitive remark. I sympathize with the offended student, who has a brother with Down syndrome, and with families upset by the comment.
But the statement was ill-considered, not ill-intentioned, and I don't think Harris deserves the national condemnation that has befallen him. (Where, I wonder, are fellow faculty and administrators standing up for academic freedom?)
I have doubts whether the story should have run at all, given its provenance. But if it had to -- can we ignore a news release? -- I'd like to have seen better context, higher in the story, that would have given readers a more nuanced understanding of a professor just trying to teach.
and my letter to the editor of this story:
Thanks for the entire article...I was one emailing the university, AND the professor.
I am a parent advocate, and an online counselor of parents receiving the news that
the baby they are anticipating has a duplication in the 21st chromosome.
What the professor probably didn't realize is that now he is now the face of EVERY
misinformed doctor and geneticist out there. Generally, when the amnio is read,
the physician apologizes, and then schedules a quick D&C.
To receive the news is devastating, and parents need a chance to THINK...
they are rarely given that chance. The lucky ones get online to get educated,
and hopefully run into us...a host of parents that have discovered
that DS is not debilitating...but that my child is just like the 3 that proceeded her.
She has the same quick wit and orneriness....she's smart...she's eager to learn and
desperate to please. She works hard, and again not unlike her older typical
sibs, does have some tendencies that can be frustrating, and that we work with.
If you think doctors have a 'God complex' then you should talk to geneticists...there
is no complex in their eyes, the ARE God...and they do not believe that children like
ours need to survive. We work hard to dispel their opinions, but the thought that
it is being TAUGHT to future physicians is the proverbial straw that broke the
There is probably no need of me expounding on the wonder that is my youngest
daughter....unless you are personally involved, you'll never understand....
but you should be able to understand the fierceness in which parents defend their children.
He opened that fierceness in all of us.
It is the consensus of most physicians that the babies with T-21 be aborted. There is less than 10% of the children conceived that even MAKE it to birth! That is an outrageous fact. There is still no way to determine how many are therapeutic abortions.....but it makes each and every live birth of these children a miracle in itself.
My apologies to the professor who opened this can of worms, he carries on his shoulders every horrible thing a doctor has ever said to an expectant parent....
Maybe those doctors will read this and will understand compassion, education, and the worth of every life on this earth. It is exactly in this time on earth that our children need to survive. They teach lessons in love and diversity that the world needs to learn.
Thank you again for bringing this story to light. It needs to be read...it needs to be discussed, and the general public needs to know.
We hope for the day that the word "retard" ceases to
be a funny adjective for something people find ridiculous, and falls into the 'hate word' category it so deserves to be in.
FYI, we speak in 'people first' language...ie she is not a down syndrome child...she is my daughter. She has brown hair, sparkling eyes, wicked humor, and yes, she happens also to have down syndrome. It is PART of who she is, it is not WHO she is.
We say, a child with down syndrome....or Parents of children with
Thank you for your time in this matter,
West Plains, Missouri.