News Law and Policy

Wisconsin Republicans Advance Fetal Tissue Research Ban

Teddy Wilson

The state's GOP lawmakers looking to stop fetal tissue research have met opposition from both the medical community and Wisconsin's powerful business lobby.

See more of our coverage on the misleading Center for Medical Progress videos here.

A Wisconsin bill that would ban the use of fetal tissue in scientific research was passed by a committee Tuesday, and continued the recent Republican-led assault on reproductive rights and Planned Parenthood.

The bill would prohibit “certain sales and uses of fetal body parts derived from an unborn child aborted by an induced abortion.” An amendment to the bill would outlaw research using tissue obtained from any aborted fetus since the beginning of 2015.

Planned Parenthood of Wisconsin does not have a fetal tissue donation program.

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The Senate Health Committee approved the legislation in a 3-2 vote along partisan lines. The legislation was previously passed by an assembly committee, and Republicans in both chambers plan to bring the bill up for a vote this fall.

Republicans hold a 62-36 majority in the assembly and a 19-14 majority in the senate. The GOP’s charge to halt fetal tissue research now faces opposition from a traditional ally: the state’s business lobby.

Kurt Bauer, president and chief executive officer of Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, told the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel that the trade group would oppose the bill.

“As the state Chamber of Commerce, WMC has members in all sectors of the economy, including bio-tech and bioscience. Those members have expressed concerns about the bill’s impact on their ability to conduct medical research,” Bauer said.

This places the state’s business lobby and anti-choice activists on opposite sides, leaving Republicans who are typically supported by both groups to consider their options.

“No one really knew or expected that, I think, and when they did, certainly it’s something I think many members will take into account,” Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald (R-Juneau) told the Capital Times.

Rep. Andre Jacque (R-De Pere), who introduced the bill, told the Wisconsin Radio Network that he was caught off guard by the business lobby’s decision. “It was not something that I was forewarned about, either in terms of my colleagues in the Assembly or with WMC,” Jacque said.

Jacque said he introduced AB 305, which is similar to another bill he introduced in 2013, in response to secretly recorded and heavily edited videos attacking Planned Parenthood.

The publication of videos featuring surreptitiously recorded conversations with Planned Parenthood officials and biomedical companies discussing fetal tissue donation policies has led to outrage from anti-choice activists and lawmakers, even as those deceptive videos have been largely discredited. GOP-launched investigations into Planned Parenthood’s use of fetal tissue have turned up no wrongdoing.

Supporters of the bill say that scientific research, no matter how beneficial, should not be conducted using fetal tissue obtained from abortions. “Using the body parts from the murder of an unborn child for the economy or for research … is unethical,” Sen. Terry Moulton (R-Chippewa Falls) said, reported the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel.

Dr. Robert Golden, dean of the University of Wisconsin School of Medicine and Public Health, testified during an assembly committee hearing that AB 305 would shut down life-saving research and poison the climate for investment in biomedical innovation.

“The word is already out on street that Wisconsin is not the place for science or biomedical research,” Golden said. “We need to turn that around.”

Fetal tissue research has led to vaccines for polio, hepatitis A, chickenpox, rubella, and rabies. That hasn’t stopped abortion opponents from questioning the research’s importance in medical breakthroughs, and they instead advocate for continued use of stem cells.

The bill is opposed by both university and private researchers, and the state’s largest business group also opposes the bill.

Democrats who opposed the legislation argued that Republicans’ inability to compromise illustrated a fundamental problem with the party. “If you’re not open to compromise about that, your party has really driven off a cliff,” Sen. Jon Erpenbach (D-Middleton) told Republicans, reported the Milwaukee-Wisconsin Journal Sentinel.

The debate over the bill comes as Planned Parenthood Federation of America (PPFA) sent a letter to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) saying its affiliates would no longer request reimbursement for donation of fetal tissue, instead covering the costs of preserving and transporting the tissues on its own.

Jacque said that Planned Parenthood’s decision proved Republicans were justified in pushing the proposal and that the organization’s policy change would not affect his position on the issue.

Republican lawmakers are also targeting Planned Parenthood with two other pieces of legislation.

One bill would ban Planned Parenthood from receiving federal money for family planning services and divert it to different groups, and another bill aims to restrict how much Planned Parenthood could be reimbursed for certain prescription drugs. The committee passed both Republican measures Tuesday.

The proposals would reduce public funds to Planned Parenthood by a combined $7.5 million per year.

Erpenbach said he has not seen an adequate plan for how the state Department of Health Services would ensure that recipients are still able to access services after Planned Parenthood loses the funding.

It remains unclear how many lawmakers in the chamber will support the fetal tissue ban. Fitzgerald told the Capital Times that use of fetal tissue is a “difficult issue” and that the Republican caucus is attempting to reach an agreement between lawmakers in the assembly and the senate, as well as with Republican Gov. Scott Walker.

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