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Wisconsin Medical Researchers Deliver Opposing Opinions on Fetal Tissue Bill

The bill would criminalize the sale and use of cells derived from abortions performed from 2015 forward and would affect researchers at both UW-Madison and the Medical College of Wisconsin. Several testified Tuesday before a state Senate committee.

Dr. Robert Golden, dean of UW-Madison's School of Medicine and Public Health, insists the bill would have a chilling effect on medical research there. He says its scientists are using fetal tissue to search for a cure for Ebola and for treatments for Down syndrome and Alzheimer’s disease.

“If this bill becomes law, we immediately shut down all of the projects that would be in violation of the law, of course. Those scientists will take their life work with them, across to other states that will welcome them,” Golden says.

Golden says researchers have been using fetal tissue since the 1930s.

“The polio vaccine which everybody in this room has protection with, would not have been developed, if this bill had been in place, back in the 1950s,” Golden says.

Golden says clinics otherwise destroy fetal tissue, yet it holds unique properties such as cells that have not yet differentiated into body parts.

John Raymond says his researchers want the material they believe holds the most promise. Raymond is president of the Medical College of Wisconsin. He says many faculty are concerned that Wisconsin might criminalize their work. He also wonders if a fetal tissue ban would eventually cause his institution to lose the ability to treat certain patients.

“If therapies based on fetal tissues are developed outside of the state of Wisconsin, our clinicians won’t be able to deliver those therapies. Patients would have to go out of the state to receive treatments based on fetal tissue work,” Raymond says.

Raymond and Golden say they want Wisconsin to adopt the strongest ethical practices in the nation - accommodating the use of fetal tissue in research.

Professor Kathleen Schmainda says she fears what could result – if scientists turn fetal tissue into treatments. She’s one of at least a handful of faculty at the Medical College that supports the proposed ban.

“What if some day, a cure for a common disease such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s is found and it is determined that use of fetal tissue is the only avenue for the cure. Are we actually ready for what follows? Are we ready for the millions upon millions of fetuses that may be needed to cure our aging population,” Schmainda says.

Schmainda says researchers have many other cells available to them. Quite a few have resulted in successful therapies, according to her colleague Dr. Tara Sander Lee. She mentions insulin for diabetes and Herceptin for breast cancer.

When it comes to claims that medical researchers will flee Wisconsin if it restricts the use of fetal tissue, Lee says she notices the opposite.

“Students and researchers have left science altogether, after failing to find research laboratories that did not use abortion-derived or human embryonic tissues,” Lee says.

Lee says some students at the Medical College already want full disclosure about cells that arrive in the lab, because they don’t want to unknowingly work with material that abortions provided.

"Ultimately what matters most, is that we cannot support the exploitation of one group of human beings, the pre-born, for the benefit of another group,” Lee says.

Lee insists that demand for fetal tissue will fuel an industry willing to supply it. The bill legislators are considering is one of three Republicans are offering to strike business at Planned Parenthood.