Anti-cloning amendment in Senate higher-ed omnibus bill

The inclusion of an anti-cloning amendment into the Minnesota Senate higher education committee's omnibus bill, approved this evening, has DFLers suggesting the Republicans pulled a fast one.

The amendment essentially prohibits the use of state and federal funds for "human cloning," and is a paired-down version of what came up in the Senate this week. (You can read about similar Minnesota bills here.)

The main point debated this evening: what "human cloning" means and what the author, Sen. Michelle Fischbach (R-Paynesville), is trying to do with her amendment.

Here's the main language:

No state funds or federal funds the state receives for state programs may be used to either support human cloning or to pay for any expenses incidental to human cloning. For purposes of this section, "cloning" means generating a genetically identical copy of an organism at any stage of development by combining an enucleated egg and the nucleus of a somatic cell to make an embryo.

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The big question: Is Fischbach trying to ban "reproductive cloning" (the cloning of fully formed human beings, which much of the public and scientific community opposes) or "therapeutic cloning" as well (the cloning of tissue for use in the treatment of diseases, which many scientists support)?

It's a key question. Democrats on the committee, along with one U of M scientist who testified earlier this week, worried that banning therapeutic cloning would damage the state's research reputation, resulting in lost prestige, revenue and jobs.

This evening, despite repeated questioning, Fischbach wouldn't say which form of cloning she was targeting -- only that she was against "human cloning."

That led at least one DFLer to suggest she was hiding her true intent -- the banning of all cloning. By using the overly broad expression "human cloning" in the amendment, they said, she would confuse the public, which tends to associate "human cloning" with reproductive cloning.

The only person present to testify at the session was a member of the Minnesota Citizens Concerned for Life (MCCL), whose executive director is Fischbach's husband. She spoke in favor of the amendment.

That prompted DFLers to complain that the Republicans had pulled a fast one -- by adding the amendment at the last minute to prevent opposition testimony, adding it to what was essentially a finance bill, and using confusing, overly broad terminology.

Sen. Ron Latz (DFL-St. Louis Park) told the committee:

"The fact that it’s the MCCL testifying tells us a lot about the motive of this bill. This is the pro-life movement trying to move the envelope. Let’s be honest …and not pretend here. ... I respect that religious belief, but ennobling it in state statute is a different matter."

Fischbach said it was standard procedure to insert last-minute amendments -- as DFLers did later that evening -- and that the public has already had multiple hearings at which they could testify:

"There was ample opportunity to testify – not on this exact language – but on this issue."

No real surprises with the rest of the bill and its funding decisions, which are essentially the same as what was reported in the budget breakdown.

(The Minnesota State Colleges and Universities system took a 10.33 percent hit, the University of Minnesota a 14.41 percent hit, the Office of Higher Ed administration a 10.33 percent hit and the State Grant Program a 2.58 percent increase.)

The bill's other points (many of which I've written about) include:

  • a tuition cap of 3 percent annually for two-year MnSCU colleges, 4 percent for MnSCU universities and 4 percent for resident University of Minnesota undergraduates;

  • a requirement that MnSCU put any savings they gain through legislative salary curbs toward the lowering of tuition.

  • a new formulation for the State Grant Award program that would shift the burden of tuition not covered by the program from students onto their families in an attempt to protect low-income families. (How this is supposed to work, I'm not sure.)

  • a study of graduate education at for-profit institutions; and

  • a lowering from 66 to 62 the age at which people can attend college classes at reduced cost.

It took a lashing by Democrats on the committee.

Sen. Kathy Sheran (DFL-Mankato) knocked the bill as another attempt to have the middle- and lower classes shoulder the tax burden while leaving wealthiest residents.

"We’re on our third round of cuts, and people have lost wages, benefits ... and services from the county. But we have yet to ask the highest earners to contribute a dollar more (to solving the fiscal crisis)."