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The conservative offense against Planned Parenthood and reproductive rights in the U.S. recently gained traction from secretly recorded and shamelessly distorted videotapes, exaggerated upon by Republican presidential contenders like Carly Fiorina. Although Fiorina’s description of the videos has been widely refuted, their release has had impact. Some 12 states, including Colorado, California, Illinois and Wisconsin, are entertaining legislation banning all fetal tissue exchange.
In Wisconsin, the video is being used to help resurrect efforts to ban all scientific testing utilizing fetal tissue. However, the anti-scientific stance of legislators (and Gov. Scott Walker) is colliding with the burgeoning bio-scientific industry cropping up around the University of Wisconsin’s massive research efforts. A crack has thus emerged in the corporate-social conservative coalition that has been rock-solid in the state since Walker took office in 2011.
The potential benefits to humanity of fetal tissue research are immense, promising advances in fighting diabetes and cancer as well as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurological disorders. Turning their backs on this enormous potential, ultra-conservatives in Wisconsin had previously introduced a ban on fetal-tissue research. The legislation was revived this fall in the Wisconsin Legislature by the bogus video, along with the support of Gov. Scott Walker seeking the votes of cultural conservatives during his now-terminated presidential run.
The proposed fetal-tissue research ban has produced opposition from Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, the state’s most powerful corporate lobbying group. Adding their weight to the opposition have been the 200-member BioForward association of bio-tech firms, the Wisconsin Technology Council, the Wisconsin Alumni Research Federation, and the State Medical Society.
UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank has weighed in strongly, labeling the legislation a bigger threat to the university than the $250 million in budget cuts imposed by Gov. Scott Walker.
"This is a direct hit. This is a threat to one of our strongest areas in terms of our reputation in the sciences." — UW-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank
Kevin Conroy, CEO of a Madison-based diagnostic test maker declared, “You want to ask the Legislature, ‘Where do you think growth is going to come from?’” BioForward executive director Lisa Johnson told The Progressive, “We would also be the only state in the nation with this restriction. It really sets Wisconsin apart as anti-business, anti-research, anti-biosciences, which is the future."
The blog Right Wisconsin noted the unusual fissure: “It is not often you see this kind of split between members of the conservative coalition. And in terms of major players, they don't get much bigger than Wisconsin Right to Life and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce.”
The coalition of corporate lobbyists and the bio-science industry creates a significant barrier to the fetal-tissue ban, which would levy stiff penalties (a felony and up to $50,000 in fines on researchers using fetal tissue in scientific experiments). But while the need for unfettered research is clear, the debate has thus far been discouraging. The present discourse has been sharply narrowed by the use of economic-development arguments by the most prominent defenders of fetal-tissue research seeking to trump the myth-driven, anti-scientific position of the social conservatives.
Within such a limited discourse of “economic development” and avoiding an “anti-business” label on the one hand, or religion-driven superstition incited by a fraudulent video on the other, the potential benefits to humanity are denied the paramount place they deserve in considering the threatened ban on research.