Posted: Jan. 18, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

There is nothing like the voodoo of an election year to turn politicians' spines into spaghetti.

Eighteen days into 2006, the state House of Representatives fled from a bill on embryonic stem cell research as if it were cursed. Not all of the state's customary pride in itself as a cradle of science could overcome the lawmakers' fear that the legislation could get them the evil eye from voters.

They gutted the bill and offered up its entrails in appeasement, even as state Rep. Deborah D. Hudson, a prime sponsor, warned that nearby New Jersey and Maryland were preparing to make the research a centerpiece of economic development.

"Delaware is like a Sleepy Hollow," Hudson said.

As conceived, the bill officially called Senate Bill 80 was designed to encourage and regulate embryonic stem cell research as a means of finding treatment for fatal and debilitating diseases and injuries, such as cancer, diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and damaged spinal cords. A parade of scientists and constituents seeking relief for themselves or loved ones sought its passage.

The bill, however, was vulnerable to a moral argument, primarily advanced by the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, that the research destroyed the essence of human life. A group calling itself  "A Rose and a Prayer" held a vigil and sent roses to House members in mobilization against the legislation.

It worked. An epic election-year panic set in.

By the time the bill came to the House floor Wednesday for a vote, it was stripped of any mention of embryonic stem cell research. All that was left was language that would outlaw human cloning and the sale of human embryos -- peripheral issues to the research. The penalty would be $1 million for cloning and $100,000 for selling embryos.

With the bill a shell of itself, it was approved overwhelmingly by a vote of 32-3 with three members abstaining and three absent. For the roll call, click here.

In a twist, because there is no mention of embryonic stem cell research in the gutted bill, the science would remain legal to do and unregulated, but the legislators did not care. They wanted nothing to do with it.

There was so much fear that state Rep. Joseph E. Miro, a Pike Creek Valley Republican, pleaded for the bill to be reintroduced with a new number -- "so the public clearly understands that [the original] Senate Bill 80 is not the bill that is going forward."

The number stayed, and it was enough to keep some legislators too spooked to vote for it. "It should have been a separate bill number. There's too much public confusion. I don't have time to clarify it with my constituents," said state Rep. John C. Atkins, a Millsboro Republican.

Atkins abstained, and it was not all he did in search of political cover. The other abstentions during the roll call came from state Reps. Joseph W. Booth and Gerald W. Hocker, the two other Sussex County Republican conservatives who were elected along with Atkins in 2002, in a show of mutual protection.

Miro, meanwhile, voted "yes" on the eviscerated bill with the fervent wish that it would go away. The thought of ever dealing with it again gave him, he said, "a little bit of a stomach ache."

Before the political panic, the original bill was regarded as likely to become law. It had the influential backing of Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a Democrat, and U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Republican recognized nationally as a leading advocate of embryonic stem cell research.

It had prime sponsors with a wide reach -- state Sen. Robert L. Venables Sr., a conservative Democrat from downstate, and Hudson, a moderate Republican from upstate, both serving in the majority party of their chambers.

The state Senate already had approved the legislation last June in a lopsided vote of 14-7, drawing support from Democrats and Republicans, upstaters and downstaters, Catholics and non-Catholics. The votes were there to pass it in the House, but the bill could not break through the end-of-session clutter to get to the floor.

The delay was its undoing. Postponement typically is one of the deadliest tactics inside Legislative Hall, and it was this time, particularly because the legislation was thrown into an election year. It also happened to coincide with the absence of state Rep. Robert F. Gilligan, the Democratic minority leader who is recovering from a health problem, depriving the bill of one of its most skillful supporters.

As the bill had advanced in bipartisan fashion, now it was shedding votes on both sides of the aisle, until the only way it could preserve a majority was to morph into an anti-cloning measure.

What is left of the bill has been returned to the Senate for its consideration. Minner no longer is committed to signing it into law. "The bill has been gutted. We'll see what the Senate does," she said.

The Senate could pass the House version, defeat it or ignore it and let it die. In a bit of devilment, the chamber also could restore the bill to its original form and ship it back to the House -- perhaps with some Pepto-Bismol for treating Joe Miro and any other representatives for that "little bit of a stomach ache" that would go with it.