Committees in both the Minnesota Senate and House passed a bill this week that would criminalize the somatic cell nuclear transfer (SCNT) process in embryonic stem cell research as well as prohibit the products of that research from entering the state of Minnesota. Despite expert testimony that the bill would hamper medical research in Minnesota, it passed three key committees this week.
The Senate’s Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety heard the bill on Thursday.
John Wagner, professor of pediatrics at the University of Minnesota and the Stem Cell Institute, said the bill would harm research at the university. He also implied that the bill’s title, The Human Cloning Prohibition Act of 2011, was misleading.
There are two kinds of uses for SCNT, he told the committee: one is to create a living, breathing human clone, also called “reproductive cloning,” and another is to use SCNT for “therapeutic cloning” to create stem cell treatments for treating disease. Wagner said that no one is trying to create whole human beings with the reproductive cloning, but many researchers are using SCNT to create stem cells for medical purposes.
“Human cloning should be prohibited. Everyone is in complete agreement with that,” Wagner told the committee. “However, there is language in here that could be construed that this is also prohibiting embryonic stem cell research. And that’s the part that I think we need to make very clear.”
Sen. John Marty (DFL-Roseville) asked Fischbach if she would approve an amendment to protect the medical research uses of SCNT. “I’m willing to work on an amendment to try and limit it to banning reproductive cloning and to protect stem cell cloning,” he said. “If that’s not the intent I’d just be wasting time.”
“The intent off the bill is to ban human cloning,” Fishbach responded. “I think what the doctor was describing in very scientific terms was either you clone a human to make a baby and implant it into a women or you clone a baby to use it in experiments”
She added, “I think what we are trying to do here is to prevent a human from being created for experiments and reproduction.”
Dr. Wagner indicated that that was not quite accurate. “None of us are creating a baby. Once you insert a nucleus in to that oocyte you get an embryo,” he said. “The intent is not to create a baby, the intent is to create an embryo. I think it comes down to what you think an embryo is. We are talking about eight cells here.”
Wagner added that the University of Minnesota currently does not use the SCNT technique and does not create new embryos; instead researchers use embryonic stem cell lines created in different states and countries. He said there was concern, however, that the bill would ban the importation of cells and products created by SCNT in Minnesota and that it would impact the university’s research.
But according to testimony by Andrea Rau of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, much of the bill may not matter because the type of research the group is trying to ban is already illegal.
“It is already not allowed under Minnesota law,” said Rau, citing laws related to “human conceptus.”
“If it’s already unlawful then I don’t see why we need this legislation,” Marty said. “Then this is not to stop a cloned human being, this is to stop research into cures for Parkinsons, ALS and other diseases.”
The University of Minnesota provided legislators with a fact sheet that calls the bill a “law to make stem cell research a crime.” The university also created a website to oppose the bill.
Its author, Sen. Michelle Fischbach, said the penalties for such research under the bill have been reduced from a felony charge to a misdemeanor. Fischbach is the wife of Scott Fischbach, the executive director of Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life, a group that is working to draft and pass the bill.
The bill passed the committee by a 8-5 vote on Thursday. And on Tuesday, the bill passed the Senate Health and Human Services Committee. The House Committee on Judiciary and Public Safety passed it by a voice vote on Tuesday as well.