By Guy Page
In 2012, UVM Professor Bindu Pinnikar wrote in a scholarly article that “fetal tissue transplantation into animal models such as rodents is a highly charged and controversial topic, with ethical, moral and socio-political implications that are more powerful than other human- and animal-based research.”
She is right, of course. For many years, the research community has debated this practice on the ethical grounds of its harmful implications to the fetus. But the Vermont Legislature is poised to do an about-face with research ethics. Some lawmakers are less concerned with fetal rights and are more concerned about the lab animals. Vermont Senate Bill 16, sponsored by Sen. Tim Ashe (D/P -Chittenden), would protect vertebrate animals — including lab rats and mice — from being used for non-medical research. At the same time, House Bill 57 would decree that throughout the entire pregnancy, “the fetus shall not have independent rights under Vermont law.”
A fetus without “independent rights under Vermont law” seemingly would be fair game for research and experimentation if both doctor and mother agree. A plain reading of H.57 would deny a living, viable creature with human DNA and a beating heart the same legal protection S.16 would give to a rat.
“The effect of this bill would be to enshrine in the law the unrestricted right to kill a child for any reason, up to the moment of birth. Abortion for sex selection purposes, for organ harvesting, for medical research or experimentation, or even for eugenics will all be beyond the reach of the law,” attorney Deb Bucknam of Walden said in a guest editorial in the January 28 Caledonian-Record. “This bill also makes it legal for an aborted child who is born alive to be killed after its birth.”
The federal government is lukewarm about banning fetal research. Federal law prohibits direct sale of fetal tissue but in practice allows compensation for tissue donation. Some states see this as a loophole. According to the National Council on State Legislatures (NCIL), many states have passed laws explicitly banning fetal research. Consider the law in Florida: “No person shall use any live fetus or live, premature infant for any type of scientific, research, laboratory, or other kind of experimentation either prior to or subsequent to any termination of pregnancy procedure except as necessary to protect or preserve the life and health of such fetus or premature infant.”
Vermont has no law limiting or banning fetal research. Neither has such a bill been introduced into this Legislature, nor even publicly discussed.
Instead, the Vermont Legislature seems more interested in protecting vertebrates of the non-fetal persuasion. To avoid any potential confusion or loophole, S.16 explicitly excludes the fetus (developing backbone notwithstanding) from its protected class of animals: “’Animal’ means a living vertebrate nonhuman animal.”
H.57 will get a public hearing from the House Human Services and Judiciary committees 4:30 – 6:30 p.m. Wednesday at the Vermont Statehouse. Speakers are allotted two minutes, and sign-up begins at 4 p.m.
Statehouse Headliners is intended primarily to educate, not advocate. It is e-mailed to an ever-growing list of interested Vermonters, public officials and media. Guy Page is affiliated with the Vermont Energy Partnership; the Vermont Alliance for Ethical Healthcare; and Physicians, Families and Friends for a Better Vermont.