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Politics lurk behind lawsuit over stem cells

By Matt Pommer

Republican Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen has ducked out of representing the state in a legal fight over a federal court ruling blocking the U.S. government from spending money on stem-cell research.

A weak excuse, offered by a spokesman, was the attorney generals office didn’t have all the necessary legal materials, including copies of pleadings and court filings, to join the case that is being pursued by the Obama administration.

“It would be irresponsible for this office to step into a complicated, highly charged dispute without having all the facts and information we require,” offered Bill Cosh, a Justice Department spokesman.

Credit politics for the decision. The anti-abortion, right-to-life movement has opposed using embryonic stem cells for research. The cells represent human life, according to those groups.

Van Hollen is up for re-election, and the right-to-life movement is an important part of the Republican base. Avoiding the case probably pleased the movement, which includes significant religious groups.

The Justice Department is composed of highly skilled civil service attorneys. These lawyers know how to find the necessary legal papers if Van Hollen were to give the approval to represent the state.

Gov. Jim Doyle quickly promised to appoint special counsel to represent the state. His office reported it is important for the state to be represented “so Wisconsin interests will be addressed.” Doyle also urged the Wisconsin congressional delegation to lead the fight to repeal a federal law that bars the use of federal taxpayer money for experiments that destroy human embryos.

The issue is broader than it first appears. Many who oppose abortion may still have hope that research can provide answers to illnesses and medical conditions. That group includes people, who like the governor himself, have seen family members suffer from disabling illnesses.

“The stem cell research conducted in this state provides the potential for life-saving medical breakthroughs that families around the world so desperately need,” Doyle said in announcing the legal moves.

Then there is the jobs issue. Wisconsin is home to more than 600 biotechnical companies, 11 stem-cell companies and has 34,000 residents in the bioscience industry. A large segment of these are high-paying jobs.

All the candidates for office say they are for jobs, jobs, jobs. The stem-cell research efforts clearly are a step in that direction.

Doyle has pushed state help for the industry in his eight years as governor. This year, Republican candidates have been denouncing Doyle for everything but summer humidity and the failure of the Milwaukee Brewer pitching staff.

The new court fight could put the human embryonic stem-cell issue back into 2010 politics.

Matt Pommer worked as a reporter in Madison for 35 years. He comments on state political and policy issues.

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