The Wisconsin State Capitol, as seen from a nearby building in Madison, Wis., on June 16, 2011.
Michael P. King/Wisconsin State Journal/AP

Wisconsin lawmakers weigh ban on fetal-tissue research

Updated
The recent controversy surrounding Planned Parenthood has long been burdened with a serious flaw: the group is donating fetal tissue to scientists for medical research, which is perfectly legal. Indeed, the practice was specifically authorized by Congress, with broad and bipartisan support, decades ago.
 
When the right expresses outrage about “harvesting organs,” as Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) recently put it, conservatives aren’t condemning Planned Parenthood so much as they’re going after the fetal-tissue research itself.
 
With this in mind, proposals like these were probably inevitable.
One legislator behind an effort to ban research on aborted fetal tissue expects swift action on the bill in the state Legislature, and is “extremely optimistic” Gov. Scott Walker will sign legislation to “make the procurement of aborted baby body parts illegal.” […]
 
The bill, spearheaded by Reps. André Jacque, R-De Pere, and Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, and Sen. Duey Stroebel, R-Saukville, would ban selling, donating and experimenting with fetal body parts resulting from abortions in Wisconsin.
The report from the Capital Times in Madison noted that there was a public hearing on the proposal in the state Assembly’s criminal justice committee. Not surprisingly, the medical and scientific research communities were on one side, while conservative activists were on the other.
 
Just so we’re clear, “selling” fetal tissue is already illegal at the national level, so that part of the effort is redundant. What matters here is the broader effort to legally prohibit medical research and non-profit clinics donating tissue for scientific purposes.
 
It need not be an abortion debate, per se. The question is whether to discard fetal tissue after a terminated pregnancy or whether to use those tissues for potentially life-saving research. The bill pending in Wisconsin would ensure the former and ban the latter.
 
The Wisconsin State Journal published an interesting item over the weekend from Tom Still, who serves as the president of the Wisconsin Technology Council. He seems a little concerned about the pending measure, and for good reason.
Leaders of the state’s two medical schools have said they’re opposed to legislation that would shut down promising research, which would have economic as well as ethical costs if life-saving therapies aren’t allowed to reach the finish line.
 
Others note that $76 million in outside research dollars, predominantly from federal sources such as the National Institutes for Health, flow each year to UW-Madison labs that conduct research with fetal tissue. Collectively, those labs employ about 1,400 people, according to a campus spokesman.
 
Promising young companies would also be threatened. One example is FluGen in Madison, which is developing a flu vaccine by growing the virus in HEK cells. Take that tool away and the company would be less likely to start clinical trials – and could be forced to leave Wisconsin.
There’s no word yet on when the Republican-led legislature intends to act on the proposal. Watch this space.
 
Disclosure: My wife works at Planned Parenthood, but she played no role in this piece and her work is unrelated to fetal-tissue research.
 

Abortion, Planned Parenthood and Wisconsin

Wisconsin lawmakers weigh ban on fetal-tissue research

Updated