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Accusations that Planned Parenthood profits from fetal tissue sale have sparked calls to end federal funding for the group, and broader state efforts to limit the use of tissue from abortions.

Accusations that Planned Parenthood profits from fetal tissue sale have sparked calls to end federal funding for the group, and broader state efforts to limit the use of tissue from abortions.

American Life League/Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)

Proposed fetal tissue ban raises alarm for Wisconsin researchers

A Wisconsin bill that would limit the research use of fetal tissue from abortions is gaining momentum, over the protest of scientists who say the measure would stifle progress in disease research. The bill, approved today by a committee in the state assembly and expected to win the support of the full assembly this fall, is the first in what many predict will be a series of battles waged at the state level against the distribution and use of fetal tissue.

The momentum behind the bill comes in part from hidden-camera footage released this summer showing a Planned Parenthood official discussing how the organization fulfills research requests for tissue from aborted fetuses. The videos sparked accusations that Planned Parenthood was illegally profiting from these procedures, and Republican legislators in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate have called for the withdrawal of its federal funding. Federal law prohibits the sale of fetal tissue, though it allows providers of donated tissue to charge recipients for processing and shipping costs.

Lawmakers in several states, including Wisconsin, Illinois, and California, have already introduced bills intended to limit the exchange of fetal tissue, either by revoking funding for clinics that supply it, excluding such tissue from laws governing organ donation, or criminalizing its use in research.

For those fundamentally opposed to the practice of abortion, the federal ban on tissue sale doesn’t go far enough, explained Representative Joel Kleefisch (R–WI), chair of the Wisconsin Assembly Committee on Criminal Justice and Public Safety, at today’s hearing. “Instead of calling it the sale, we’re calling it the cost of storage and transport, which gets to the very crux of negotiating and brokering for these body parts,” he said. Under the new Wisconsin bill, individuals who “knowingly acquire, provide, receive, or use” cells or tissues from a fetus aborted after 1 January 2015 would be guilty of a felony equivalent to trafficking human organs—with a maximum fine of $50,000—regardless of whether any fees are collected.

The bill has already run up against the state’s large and vocal biomedical research community. “No embryo or fetus is going to be lost because of the research,” says Alta Charo, a University of Wisconsin (UW), Madison, bioethicist who has been an outspoken critic of the bill. “Research needs to be regulated to protect public health and safety, but this is very different,” she says. “This is shutting down research for purely moral purposes—it’s shutting down research because people disapprove.”

Wisconsin has a history of navigating ethical debates around biomedical research. UW Madison biologist James Thomson derived the first line of human embryonic stem cells in 1998, putting the university at the center of a long controversy over their use. Research on human tissue is “a part of the research infrastructure in Wisconsin … and perhaps in some ways that makes it a bigger target,” says Tom Still, president of the Wisconsin Technology Council, which acts as an independent adviser to the governor and state legislature. The council, whose board includes representatives from tech companies, investment firms, and universities, released a resolution last week warning that the fetal tissue restrictions would drive businesses and research talent out of the state.

Meanwhile, 700 UW Madison faculty members signed a letter of opposition urging lawmakers to consider the value of research that might become illegal under the bill. Cell lines derived from fetal tissue have become a staple of many biomedical labs, where they can act as factories for specific proteins, and have been vital in the production of vaccines, the letter notes. The Wisconsin Technology Council estimated that roughly 100 labs at UW Madison alone do research using such cell lines.

Last week, two of the bill’s co-sponsors responded to the pushback and agreed to exempt existing cell lines from the ban. The version approved by the committee today applies only to fetal tissue from abortions performed after 1 January 2015.

But the university continues to oppose the bill. “[A]ll cell lines have unique properties and existing cell lines are not a substitute for new cell lines created in the future,” the university’s vice chancellor for research and graduate education, Marsha Mailick, explained in a statement. New fetal tissue is valued as a source of stem cells, and experimental treatments for diseases including Parkinson’s disease and amyotrophic lateralized sclerosis have involved transplanting fetal cells into the brain and spinal cord in an effort to regenerate healthy tissue. The U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) estimates that $76 million of its annual research funding goes to projects involving human fetal tissue.

A handful of UW researchers—including developmental neurobiologist Anita Bhattacharyya—use new fetal tissue to investigate the origins of disease. “That’s the time when things are going wrong, prenatally,” explains Bhattacharyya, who studies how abnormal brain development leads to intellectual disability in Down syndrome and fragile x syndrome. Much of her work now relies on induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells—adult cells that have been reprogrammed to an embryonic state. But without fetal tissue, she can’t verify that her experiments with iPS cells mimic the processes in an abnormally developing brain.  

Bhattacharyya says she, like most colleagues in her field, gets fetal tissue samples from the NeuroBioBank, a network of tissue banks funded by NIH. Her requests go through an approval process that involves both the university’s institutional review board that governs human subjects research and advisers at the biobank. Wisconsin researchers don’t receive tissue directly from Planned Parenthood, as the organization does not provide a tissue donation service in the state.

A vote on the Wisconsin bill is likely before the close of the legislative session ending in November, and would then need approval from the state senate, which also has a Republican majority. Wisconsin’s governor, Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker, has yet to publicly endorse the bill.

Meanwhile, other states are predicted to take up similar measures as they return from summer recesses. “We’re expecting to see a wave of legislation in 2016,” says Elizabeth Nash, senior state issues associate at the Guttmacher Institute, a nonprofit reproductive health organization in Washington, D.C., who has been tracking fetal tissue bans in state legislatures. She notes that several states, including Ohio and North and South Dakota, already have state laws limiting fetal tissue donation or research. Several more, including Arizona and Louisiana, have seen similar bans struck down for being overly vague in their definition of research uses. In the wake of the new controversy, “anything that’s associated with abortion is considered ripe for regulation,” she says. “In a number of places, the chances that these become state law is very high.”