Michigan Legislature approves bills criminalizing research on cells derived from abortion

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In the wee hours of Friday morning, Michigan Republican senators used legislative maneuvering to quickly pass two bills that would criminalize conducting research on cells derived from an abortion.

Both bills are headed to the desk of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, who will almost assuredly veto them. The measures come at a time of renewed focus on all Michigan policies related to abortion following the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to overturn national abortion rights granted in the landmark Roe v. Wade case.

Abortion-rights protesters march through downtown Detroit following a rally at the Theodore Levin Federal Court building in Detroit to protest against the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022.
Abortion-rights protesters march through downtown Detroit following a rally at the Theodore Levin Federal Court building in Detroit to protest against the U.S. Supreme Court decision to overturn Roe v. Wade on June 24, 2022.

Spokesmen for Whitmer and Senate Majority Leader Mike Shirkey, R-Clarklake, did not respond to questions about the legislation.

More: Michigan's largest health system reverses course on abortion stance

More: Michigan officials: Abortion remains legal due to injunction against 1931 law

The bills passed the Senate after 2:30 a.m. Friday, by a 21-16 vote following no discussion or debate. The margin largely followed party lines, although Traverse City Republican Wayne Schmidt joined his Democratic colleagues in voting against the measures.

Neither measure was scheduled for a final vote. But after the Senate finished approving next year's budget — generally one of the last votes taken before lawmakers go on a two-month summer break — the GOP majority pulled both bills from a committee and put them up for a vote.

One bill, House Bill 5558, specifically bans research performed on an "organ, tissue or cell taken from a dead embryo, fetus or neonate obtained from an abortion." The second, House Bill 5559, says anyone who violates this proposed law would be guilty of a felony punishable by up to five years in prison.

Michigan law currently allows pregnant people who obtain an abortion to donate cells and tissue for research. Abortion providers are banned from earning any compensation from researchers obtaining the cells, and research conducted on such cells is heavily regulated under state and federal law, notes an analysis of the bills by the House Fiscal Agency.

Funding for fetal research was largely banned under former President Donald Trump, but it was restarted after President Joe Biden took office, according to the analysis.

More: Michigan ballot initiative seeks to guarantee abortion rights after Roe v. Wade decision

More: Michigan GOP lawmakers propose 10-year prison sentence for abortion providers

Research on cells and tissue derived from abortions is common and widespread, according to the American Society for Cell Biology. Fetal tissue research is the foundation for a litany of medical advances, from advances in treating Alzheimer's disease and spinal cord repair to the production and manufacture of the Johnson & Johnson COVID-19 vaccine.

"My message is simple: Fetal tissue and cells that would otherwise be discarded play a vital role in modern cutting edge medical research," said Dr. Lawrence Goldstein, now an emeritus professor of cellular and molecular medicine at the University of California San Diego, in 2016 during a congressional hearing on fetal tissue research.

"Without fetal tissue, vital research ... will be slowed down that would otherwise lead to therapies and vaccines sooner in the future and which could literally be life-changing for individuals and their families in the future."

Supporters of banning such research say comparable information can be obtained "without subjecting aborted embryos and fetuses to indignities and disrespect," according to the bill analysis.

Anything related to abortion will remain a massive issue for the Michigan Legislature this year. After the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Roe, a 1931 state law banning most abortions went into effect. While Whitmer and others challenge the constitutionality of the ban — and a court injunction is currently barring its enforcement — Republican and Democratic state lawmakers have proposed laws to either increase or decrease access to abortion in the state.

It's unlikely the GOP-controlled Legislature will approve any bill granting additional access to abortion, and Whitmer has already promised to veto any measures that take away abortion rights. That means an ongoing push to expressly include abortion rights in the Michigan Constitution through a ballot proposal may prove to ultimately dictate the course for abortion in the state.

Contact Dave Boucher: dboucher@freepress.com or 313-938-4591. Follow him on Twitter @Dave_Boucher1.

This article originally appeared on Detroit Free Press: Michigan GOP lawmakers OK bills criminalizing aborted cell research