- Associated Press - Wednesday, September 9, 2015

MADISON, Wis. - Research on tissue obtained from fetuses aborted after Jan. 1 of this year would be banned under a Republican-backed bill that an Assembly committee approved Wednesday despite the opposition of University of Wisconsin researchers who say it would impede their efforts to find cures for diseases.

The full Assembly could debate the measure later this month, but its prospects remain uncertain in the Senate where Republicans have expressed concern about the effect on research. The Senate and Assembly would have to pass it and Gov. Scott Walker would have to sign it to become law. Mr. Walker, who is in the 2016 presidential race, is uncommitted to the ban, a spokeswoman said.

“We surely do not want to damage the legitimate research that’s going on,” said Sen. Van Wanggaard, a Republican from Racine. He said he wouldn’t take a position on the measure until he understands how it would affect the university’s work.

Republican Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald has not said whether the bill will come up, and his spokeswoman said Wednesday there was “nothing really new here.”

The bill, which has 10 Republican co-sponsors, would need 17 votes in the Senate to pass.

Republican backers tried to address concerns with an amendment adopted Wednesday by the Assembly’s Criminal Justice Committee that would allow for work to continue on tissue derived from abortions performed before this year. It would be a felony to sell, donate or experiment on cells, tissues or organs obtained from fetuses aborted after Jan. 1.

But even that ran into Republican opposition. Republican Reps. John Spiros, of Marshfield, and Todd Novak, of Dodgeville, joined with Democrats in voting against the amendment. The committee ultimately voted 7-4 to advance the bill to the full Assembly, with Novak joining three Democrats in voting against it.

Spiros, who withdrew his co-sponsorship of the bill on Tuesday, said he objected to penalty provisions that would make researchers who violate the ban subject to felony charges punishable by up to six years in prison and $50,000 in fines. He said the bill should have been limited only to criminalizing the sale of fetal tissue, not research as well, but he joined Republicans in voting for it.

Federal courts in Arizona, Utah, Louisiana and Illinois have struck down similar laws, finding them to be unconstitutionally vague. Opponents predict that Wisconsin’s bill, if passed, would also face a court challenge, but Democratic Rep. Evan Goyke, of Milwaukee, said the real issue is that the threat of being charged with a felony will drive researchers away.

“Why would you subject yourself to a felony conviction when a neighboring state doesn’t have such a restrictive law on the books?” Goyke said.

An amendment he offered to remove the ban on research was rejected along party lines.

The university remains opposed to the bill, saying scientists’ work would be harmed even with the allowance for research on previously obtained tissue to continue.

“Stopping the clock by limiting research to cell lines developed prior to 2015 effectively tells many patients and their families still waiting for a cure that they are out of luck,” said Marsha Mailick, UW-Madison vice chancellor for research and graduate education in a statement. The bill “sends a chilling message to our scientists, to the biotechnology industry, and to our fellow citizens” and does nothing to reduce abortions, she said.

The bipartisan opposition shown by the committee vote signals there are “grave concerns” about the measure, Mailick said.

Researchers from UW and the private sector testified previously that the originally proposed ban could jeopardize $76 million of work at the UW-Madison campus and put thousands of jobs at risk.

The bill was introduced shortly after the release of undercover videos showing a medical director at a Planned Parenthood facility in southern California meeting with people posing as potential buyers of intact fetuses.

The proposal’s sponsor, Rep. Andre Jacque, R-De Pere, said at a hearing last month that the proposed ban gave the Legislature “an opportunity to set a high standard for the state of Wisconsin.”

Mr. Walker, who is campaigning for the 2016 GOP presidential nomination, supports defunding Planned Parenthood and has a strong anti-abortion record, but he hasn’t committed to supporting the fetal tissue research ban.

Walker’s spokeswoman, Laurel Patrick, repeated a previous statement about the issue, calling the Planned Parenthood videos “disturbing and abhorrent” and saying Walker will work with the Legislature to “ban these practices in Wisconsin and address concerns about this organization.”

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