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Gail Robertson (copy) (copy)

The research of Gail Robertson, a neuroscience professor at UW-Madison shown in her lab, could be impacted by a proposed ban on the use of aborted fetal tissue in Wisconsin. Robertson's research uses a line of cells derived from a single aborted fetus in the 1970s that are widely used by other researchers around the country. 

Wisconsin lawmakers backing a set of bills that would ban research on aborted fetal tissue and regulate the disposition of fetal remains say they have the votes to pass them in the Assembly and they're close in the Senate.

A coalition of anti-abortion lawmakers and advocacy groups urged the Republican leaders of both houses to schedule votes on the bills before the end of the fall session. Each chamber has two floor periods on the calendar. The bills are expected to be heard by a Senate committee early next month. 

Republicans have tried several times to pass similar legislation, but the proposals have failed in the face of opposition from the scientific and medical research communities. 

In the current legislative session, the majority party has struggled to reach consensus on how to approach the issue. 

The legislation introduced by Sen. Terry Moulton, R-Chippewa Falls, and Rep. Joel Kleefisch, R-Oconomowoc, would ban the use of aborted fetal tissue for research or any other purpose, regardless of whether money is involved. It would also require medical facilities to give parents of stillborn or miscarried babies the option to donate the remains to research. 

The two bills work together to promote research while ensuring it is not conducted on tissue from an aborted baby, the lawmakers argue. 

A competing proposal introduced prior to the coalition-backed bill by Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. Cindi Duchow, R-Town of Delafield, would ban the sale of aborted fetal tissue and regulate certain research.

Matt Sande, legislative director for Pro-Life Wisconsin and a member of the Heal Without Harm coalition, said the coalition has compromised on several aspects of the legislation, "but we're not willing to cross that line into merely regulating the trade."

The Heal Without Harm coalition is composed of the Wisconsin Catholic Conference, Wisconsin Family Action, Wisconsin Right to Life and Pro-Life Wisconsin.

The legislation does not include any criminal penalties, and would impose civil forfeitures only on facilities rather than on individuals who violate the ban.

Both approaches would continue to allow research on a line of cells from a fetus legally aborted in the 1970s, which previous bills had sought to restrict. Both would also require facilities that provide abortions to dispose of the remains through burial, cremation or incineration. 

Kleefisch said he has spoken with Darling and Duchow about their bill and is hopeful an agreement can be reached, but added "when it comes to the integrity of an aborted fetus, there really is no compromise."

"We’ve been here before. The bottom line is a divergence of opinions and thoughts," Kleefisch said. "Those of us up here believe that when a child is aborted, the last thing that needs to be done to the dignity of that human life is to be shipped off, sliced up and put into test tubes and Petri dishes."

The proposed legislation would "champion research without the controversy and revulsion" associated with aborted fetal tissue, said Wisconsin Family Action president Julaine Appling.

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Cures For Tomorrow, a group composed of BioForward, the Medical College of Wisconsin, UW Health, the University of Wisconsin-Madison and the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, opposes additional state regulation on fetal tissue research.

Opponents of the proposals have argued the legislation would cause an "immediate disruption" in lifesaving research being conducted on cancer, Alzheimer's disease and other illnesses, and would drive bioscience companies out of Wisconsin.

"The bill would reach into labs and end ongoing, pioneering research on heart disease, cancer, infectious disease, and neurological and developmental disorders," members of Cures for Tomorrow said in a statement when the legislation was introduced. 

Moulton said he has 15 of the 17 votes needed to pass the legislation in the Senate. Kleefisch said he believes there are enough votes to pass it in the Assembly now.

Spokespeople for Senate Majority Leader Scott Fitzgerald, R-Juneau, and Assembly Speaker Robin Vos, R-Rochester, did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

"Robin Vos has always been fair when he says he if believes it’s something the majority of the caucus wants, it will end up on the floor, so we’ll see if that’s the case," Kleefisch said.

Fitzgerald told reporters in February it would be "tough" to find a compromise on the proposals, but said he was optimistic lawmakers could reach an agreement. Vos is a cosponsor of the Darling-Duchow bill.

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