University of Wisconsin-Madison Chancellor Rebecca Blank told UW System regents Friday that proposed state legislation on the future of fetal tissue research represents a greater threat to the state's flagship university than recent state budget cuts.
"This is a direct hit," Blank said. "This is a threat to one of our strongest areas in terms of our reputation in the sciences."
The University of Wisconsin System Board of Regents took no formal action Friday opposing proposed state legislation that threatens the future of fetal tissue research at the state's flagship campus aimed at curing cancer and other diseases.
But Blank and several regents spoke passionately against the bill during a meeting at UW-Whitewater, including two regents who have battled cancer and one whose wife died of cancer.
The legislation would not only threaten UW-Madison's advances in biomedical research, it would lead to top researchers and students going elsewhere because they no longer could do their research in Wisconsin, Blank said.
Regents President Regina Millner described the legislation as "fluid and evolving" and said any board action now would be untimely. No Senate companion bill currently is on the floor "and we know there are serious discussions taking place that will guide the direction of this bill before it becomes law," she said, implying that she expects significant changes.
Bill supporters say it would protect against profiteering from the remains of fetuses, while opponents say the state could achieve that goal without criminalizing potentially lifesaving research.
Research could continue in the state on long-standing lines of fetal tissue derived from abortions but not on newly gathered tissues, under the legislation that was amended in an Assembly committee Wednesday despite some Republican opposition.
One Republican lawmaker, Rep. John Spiros of Marshfield, said Wednesday he disagreed with a provision of that would make it a felony for researchers to conduct research on fetal tissue that was newly collected from an abortion.
Regent Margaret Farrow, a former Republican lawmaker and lieutenant governor, said she assumes there is a plan being discussed in the Senate. "The Senate often steps ahead of the Assembly" when the Assembly is divided on an issue, she said.
"My concern is how fast this could move," Farrow said. "We've got to be timely about this."
Regent Chuck Pruitt, whose wife died in January from complications of lymphoma, reminded his colleagues of their responsibilities as regents.
"None is more important than to be defenders and protectors of academic freedom and the research of this university," Pruitt said. "This is an issue of profound importance with potentially very significant and not easily overstated importance to this university."
Millner said the regents could call an emergency meeting if the legislation isn't significantly changed, and the UW System's governing body needs to take a formal stand.
"While we were disappointed the bill moved forward at the committee without an amendment addressing the lifesaving, nationally recognized research occurring at UW-Madison, the discussion both at the committee and throughout the Capitol leads us to believe the bill will see significant changes during the legislative process," Millner said.
Millner said she consulted with Blank and UW System President Ray Cross and concluded that passing a resolution of any kind now "would only limit our ability to influence this process as it evolves."
The UW System has been working to repair a strained relationship with Republican lawmakers over the past two years prompted by a breakdown in transparency and accountability. It also is dealing with the realities of a $250 million cut in state funding over the next two years.
Instead of opposing the Assembly bill in a formal regents resolution, "we should encourage efforts to review our ethical standards to confirm they are in fact the very highest ethical standards and most stringent processes in the country for the acquisition and use of fetal body parts," Millner said.
Blank said the research is done under stringent federal regulations and with great attention to working ethically with human tissue.
"Labeling our faculty as felons for doing research that is state-of-the-art at any major medical school is not the right way to promote the University of Wisconsin and to build our strength," Blank said.
Regent Tony Evers, the state superintendent of public instruction and a cancer survivor, said the regents were sending "a horrible message" by not taking an official position immediately. It's not about the legislation, he said, but about "what's right."
Regent Janice Mueller, a former state auditor who was diagnosed with cancer earlier this year, said she was given a pin while in treatment that said "research cures cancer."
"It's very difficult for me to talk about this," Mueller said.
"I don't want, frankly, for people to suffer as I did."