IN MID-DECEMBER, a few Washington state reps asked for a meeting with University of Washington researchers, and got to tour the UW's Birth Defects Research Laboratory on January 4. Now, they're proposing legislation that could limit the UW's research operation.

The laboratory is a collection site for human fetal tissue taken from abortions performed at area clinics and hospitals. Researchers freeze the tissue and send it to other facilities all over the world for studies on cancer, birth defects, immune defects, and other diseases.

The legislators, a mix of Republicans and Democrats, didn't actually see any fetal tissue distributed during the tour. But they were moved enough to introduce several bills dealing with fetal tissue. The bills range in intent from banning the donation of the tissue for research to labeling boxes carrying it.

According to abortion rights advocates, anti-abortion forces are operating on the sly. They're trying to pass seemingly innocuous legislation to keep the anti-abortion fight alive. Even though the bills probably won't pass this year, it's disturbing that some representatives are wasting the legislature's time and vilifying the UW research lab.

State Representative Phil Fortunato, a Republican from the 47th District (representing south-central King County), is the main sponsor of one of the proposed bills, and has signed onto three others.

"The researchers were telling us that they get crank calls asking for babies' brains," says a grossed-out Fortunato. He says the bills are mainly closing a legal loophole. "It's against federal law to sell human parts," he explains. "There's a big gaping hole that would allow somebody to walk into an abortion clinic and [then] sell fetal tissue."

Fortunato also signed onto House Bill 2893, sponsored by Republican Representative John Koster, of the 39th District (northeast King County and Snohomish County). The bill would prohibit the sale, donation, or transfer of "aborted fetal body parts." It would also personify the fetal tissue by changing a reference from "its" to "his or her."

Fortunato says legislation limiting the use of aborted tissue has nothing to do with abortion laws. "I don't like abortions," he says. "But I have to live with abortions." He claims researchers skirt the legislation that outlaws the sale of body parts by "trafficking" fetal tissue. The UW lab is partially reimbursed for sending the tissue to other facilities.

But the lab doesn't make a profit from the reimbursement. According to UW spokesperson L. G. Blanchard, the lab is "not engaged in 'trafficking' fetal body parts." He says, "The term 'trafficking' is used for illicit activities. Last time I checked, life-saving medical research was not an illicit activity."

Karen Cooper, executive director of Washington's National Abortion and Reproductive Rights Action League (NARAL), says banning the use of fetal tissue "is completely unnecessary." NARAL is lobbying in Olympia with about 10 other pro-choice organizations to prevent the passage of bills that chip away at abortion rights. "[The bills' sponsors] are just trying to get their foot in the door," Cooper says. "These are the same people who sponsor all the bills that try to outlaw all forms of abortion."

She's right. Abortion is obviously an issue for Fortunato. Last year he sponsored a parental notification bill, which Koster also signed onto.