More MS news articles for July 2001

Budget fight looms on stem cells

Use of embryos pits anti-abortion forces against scientists

Last Updated: July 2, 2001
of the Journal Sentinel staff

Madison - One of the biggest, most emotional state budget fights in the Capitol is over embryonic stem cells - not dollars and cents.

State Assembly Republicans and a few Democrats have twice backed a major change in state law that would allow embryonic stem cells to be developed for research only through Jan. 1, so research could occur only on embryonic cells collected before that date.

Backers of the change, and anti-abortion groups pushing it, insist that life begins at conception - even when it comes to stem cells from in-vitro fertilized embryos whose donors have agreed to give them up. That is also the position of the Roman Catholic Church and some other Christian groups.

But Democrats who run the state Senate, and officials of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, insist that the ban on procuring embryonic stem cells would derail the single most promising health care research in decades.

Senate-Assembly budget negotiators must try to find a compromise on the issue, although Democrats such as Senate President Fred Risser of Madison say they won't vote for any final budget that includes the limit on stem cell research.

Scientists say embryonic stem cells are, at this point, superior to stem cells from fat and other tissue for research purposes. Researchers say embryonic stem cells have the potential to develop into almost anything in the human body, so they may be able to treat or cure diseases such as Parkinson's, diabetes, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord problems, brain injuries and other killers.

The proposed restriction on embryonic stem cell research was added to the state budget on a show-of-hands vote by Assembly Republicans on June 22.

Then, it took 29 votes to add it to the budget, and the stem cell proposal of Rep. Sheryl Albers (R-Loganville) appeared to have support from more than 40 Republicans. Exactly one week later, the full Assembly, on a 64-35 vote, refused to remove it from the budget.

Albers insisted that her proposal is not a research ban because it would allow scientists to continue their work on all stem cells procured by Jan. 1. Violators of the law could be punished with a fine of up to $50,000 and/or a prison sentence of up to 71/2 years.

Albers said it "was a concession on my part" to suggest allowing research to continue on embryonic stem cells collected by Jan. 1. She said anti-abortion groups want an immediate and outright ban on all stem cell research.

Albers acknowledged she was treading in a medical, ethical and political minefield with her proposal.

"We're looking at trying to draw some ethical lines where there are gray areas," she said. But she felt she must act to protect "life sitting there in a petri dish," referring to stem cells recovered from in-vitro fertilized embryos.

Rep. Sheldon Wasserman (D-Milwaukee), a physician, said during Assembly debate Friday that the change would be a disaster because "the future of life itself will be determined by stem cell research."

No national policy

So far, Washington politicians - including one originally from Wisconsin - have been unable to develop a permanent stem cell research policy.

President Bush and his senior aides still are studying the issue, despite the offer by Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson to develop a national policy on it. As Wisconsin's governor, a position he quit Feb. 1, Thompson backed stem cell research.

Republican Gov. Scott McCallum supports "research to save lives" and wants to make sure no fetal body parts or tissue is ever sold for profit, aide Lisa Hull said.

It would be "premature" of McCallum to comment further because he doesn't know what - if any - stem cell research limits will be in the final budget the Legislature sends to him, Hull added.

The stem cell research limit pushed by Albers has drawn national attention because Wisconsin is a worldwide leader in it, thanks to University of Wisconsin-Madison scientist James Thomson, who is studying how stem cells could be used to treat life-threatening diseases.

Thomson said it would be an "unfortunate" medical setback if Wisconsin ended development of embryonic stem cells after Jan. 1. It also might force him to leave Wisconsin, he said.

The scientist said his research lab, the WiCell Research Institute, and others worldwide will need more embryonic stem cells to do comprehensive research. "If you just cut (research) off now, you won't even get to the critical mass to do the basic research," Thomson said.

But Albers and Assembly Majority Leader Steve Foti (R-Oconomowoc) said medical researchers, and UW officials, repeatedly have said they have - or will have - enough stem cells available to do all research necessary.

"Awhile back, they jokingly would say, 'Even if you guys pass this bill, we have enough embryos to do research forever,' " Foti said of UW officials.

However, Thomson said scientists like him are just beginning to understand the potential of embryonic stem cells.

"What's even more important is these cells offer brand-new tools to understand how the body develops, and how it functions," he said. "If you're a patient with Parkinson's today, it makes a really big difference - a couple years."

Medical College of Wisconsin executives also asked last week that the limit on stem cell research be removed.

"The state budget is not an appropriate vehicle by which to pass public policy that could potentially stymie the advancement of treatments and cures for the devastating illness and injuries that impact the lives of millions of Americans," said Medical College President T. Michael Bolger and Dean Michael Dunn.

No public debate?

Mark Bugher, a former top deputy to Thompson who works with scientists and business investors as director of the UW Research Park, called the Albers proposal "humiliating" because UW-Madison is a national leader on stem cell research.

Bugher said UW officials "tried to play the honest broker" in the controversy by meeting with legislators, explaining the research and seeking a "public debate" on a separate bill - instead of a budget amendment - on stem cell research limits.

What Assembly Republican "have done is a far cry from this - slipping this into the budget like that is a very difficult way to govern," said Bugher.

But Albers said she had a right to offer her proposal as a budget amendment, and she never promised to push it as a separate bill.

Bugher said Assembly Republicans backed stem cell research limits as a "throwaway" budget item to appease anti-abortion groups that are active politically.

Foti said that is not true.

State campaign-finance records compiled by the non-profit Wisconsin Democracy Campaign show that anti-abortion groups spent more than $52,000 to help elect Republican Assembly members in the last two years.

Appeared in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel on July 3, 2001.