It began about three weeks ago with the release of surreptitiously recorded conversations between anti-abortion activists posing as fetal tissue brokers and officials from Planned Parenthood, who appeared somewhere between casual and callous as they talked about fees.
Whether the videos were misconstrued or even edited for effect no longer matters, because the firestorm they ignited in many of the nation’s statehouses has quickly become all but impossible to extinguish.
Legislation that would ban the sale and use of fetal tissue is on a fast track in the Wisconsin Legislature, where a public hearing will be held Tuesday in Madison and some Republican leaders are pledging swift passage in September.
Read this commentary in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel here.
The political reaction to the creepy possibility that people are illegally selling organs and tissue from aborted fetuses is understandable. The rush to pass overly broad legislation that would outlaw and even criminalize legitimate, long-standing medical research is not.
It is already against the law to sell fetal tissue. However, a 1993 federal law allows a woman to consent to donations after an abortion, under conditions that prevent her from knowing or having a say in how the tissue will be used … let alone profiting from it. The same law allows for “reasonable” fees to recover the costs of donating the tissue, which is what Planned Parenthood insists was discussed in the July videos.
Either way, tissue donations are not conducted at Planned Parenthood clinics in Wisconsin. Major research institutions such as the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Medical College of Wisconsin have conducted fetal tissue research for decades, but they obtain tissue from a federally monitored tissue bank, not Planned Parenthood.
There’s a larger point being overlooked in this debate: Researchers across the United States have used fetal tissue since the 1930s to advance medicine.
Such experiments led to development of the polio vaccine, to cite one prominent example. Current studies use fetal tissue to target birth defects and diseases ranging from cancer to diabetes, from muscular dystrophy to Parkinson’s disease, and from immune disorders to killer strains of influenza.
A cell line known as HEK and derived from a single fetus more than 40 years ago is still used by researchers everywhere — including nearly 100 labs on the Madison campus alone. That legal research tool could be lost under the Wisconsin bill, along with the lifesaving promise of medical research that could become illegal overnight.
“I don’t think anyone wants to trade in fetal body parts, and that’s nothing we do here,” said Carl Gulbrandsen, managing director of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, which handles potential discoveries from UW-Madison laboratories. “We don’t get any of our tissue from (in vitro fertilization) clinics or abortion clinics.”
For Gulbrandsen and others who have watched the debate unfold since mid-July, the threat is not ratifying the illegality of fetal tissue sales in Wisconsin. The danger lies in passing a broadly written bill that could put at risk an entire field of medical research. That would chill biomedical research, one of Wisconsin’s technology strengths, at a stiff cost.
“If (the bill) passes in the form it’s in now, it will have economic consequences in this state,” Gulbrandsen said. “It will once again label Wisconsin as being unfriendly to biotechnology and make it harder to attract and retain companies and scientists.”
Quoted in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Medical College of Wisconsin President John Raymond issued a similar warning: “The legislation will result in the loss of jobs, talented scientists and clinicians, and Wisconsin biotechnology companies. Clearly, this legislation will adversely affect the Wisconsin economy.”
About $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.
Proponents of the bill say they’re open to revisions. That’s good, because a narrowly drafted piece of legislation could ensure illegal fetal tissue trafficking remains so without turning well-intentioned researchers into potential felons.
One amendment could be as simple as placing the burden of proof on the research institutions themselves, which pay to transport and safely store legally obtained tissue, rather than individual researchers down the line.
Sound public policy is rarely made on the fly. Strong political instincts are one thing; hasty overreaction is quite another.