Posted: Jan. 9, 2006


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

After a six-month truce while the Delaware General Assembly was on break, nothing seemed to change in the emotional debate about embryonic stem cell research, although the bill itself did.

State Sen. Robert L. Venables Sr., a Laurel Democrat, and state Rep. Deborah D. Hudson, a Greenville Republican, who are the prime sponsors, used the time off to rewrite the legislation to try to quiet some objections, but it is clear that this matter remains too raw for compromise, like abortion or the right-to-die case of Terry Schiavo.

Hudson circulated the new draft last Wednesday evening as she held a public hearing that drew a standing-room crowd of more than 150 people to the House chamber in Legislative Hall in Dover.

The measure, Senate Bill 80, was approved in June by the 21-member state Senate in a lopsided vote of 14-7, but the opponents were able to capitalize on the typically chaotic end-of-session crush to keep the state House of Representatives from considering it before the legislature went home for the year.

Instead, the topic will be revisited almost as soon as the lawmakers return to Dover. The session resumes on Tuesday, and the bill is scheduled to come before the House on Thursday. Hudson will introduce the new version then.

No matter how stormy the debate is, the 41-member House is expected to pass the legislation with a handful of votes to spare over the 21 "yes" votes needed for a majority. "I do believe the votes are there," Hudson said.

If the House acts favorably, the bill would be returned to the Senate for its approval of the new language, and Venables is confident the chamber would vote promptly to send it on to the governor, who is committed to signing it into law.

"If they do it on the 12th and it happened to pass, we'd probably work that right away," Venables said. "I can't imagine too many of these people [in the Senate] changing their minds."

The bill would add Delaware to a vanguard of powerhouse technology states like California and Massachusetts, which are encouraging embryonic stem cell research already, and bolster the state's proud self-image as a home for scientific endeavors that far outstrip its tiny size, springing from the DuPont Co. to the University of Delaware to the A.I. du Pont Hospital for Children.

It is probably no accident that U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, a Republican who is Delaware's lone member in the U.S. House of Representatives, is the champion of the congressional effort to remove federal restrictions on the research. Castle, a former governor, also has devoted considerable time to the state-level debate.

The bill would set up a framework for the research within ethical guidelines. In exchange for the regulations, researchers would be granted the legal protection to know they could pursue their work, searching for cures for fatal or debilitating diseases and injuries like cancer, diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and spinal cord injuries.

"In Delaware, embryonic stem cell research is currently legal. Cloning is currently legal. Selling embryos is currently legal. This would regulate stem cell research in Delaware in the most ethical way possible," Hudson said.

The new version of the bill toughens the penalties for violations -- such as increasing the fine for cloning from $250,000 to $1 million -- and it also accommodates the concerns of private companies for confidentiality. A key reason the legislation was postponed in June was late-surfacing objections from AstraZeneca, which did not want its intellectual property exposed if it decided to perform embryonic stem cell research.

At times the debate has seemed otherworldly. The prime opposition has come from the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, which condemns the research as a violation of the sanctity of life. Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli led prayers outside of Legislative Hall last year, and currently a group called "A Rose and a Prayer" is holding an eight-day prayer vigil leading up to the House vote.

There also was an eerie occurrence in Legislative Hall. During a House hearing on the bill in June, one of the glass plates that cover legislators' desktops inexplicably shattered. The desk used to be occupied by state Rep. G. Robert Quillen, a Republican who died in 2004 from cancer, one of the diseases targeted by the research.

The opposition has been at a disadvantage politically because no legislator has made its cause a priority, leading the debate and rounding up votes, to counter Venables and Hudson. They have shown how forceful a team a political odd couple can be, Venables in the Democratic-run Senate and Hudson in the Republican-majority House.

Venables is a Democratic conservative from downstate, most often identified as an unyielding obstructionist to gay rights legislation. Hudson is a Republican moderate from upstate, one of the movers behind the smoking ban. 

Nor has there been a bloc of lawmakers to mobilize on the opposition's behalf. The support for the bill has come from all over the legislative spectrum. The Senate roll call recorded "yes" votes from Democrats and Republicans, upstaters and downstaters, Catholics and non-Catholics. For the Senate vote, click here.

The opposition also has the disadvantage of arguing an abstract -- what they regard as the moral wrong of destroying human embryos -- while legislators are meeting directly with Delawareans who want the research to go forward because of its potential to spare themselves or their loved ones from suffering or death.

The public hearing last week brought the two sides of this argument into sharp focus. There was, for example, Bessie A. McAneny of the Delaware Pro Life Coalition and Nurses for Life warning the legislators that if the bill passed, they would have "participated in a crime against humanity."

Then there was Stephanie L. Hansen, someone the legislators knew as a former Democratic president of the New Castle County Council. A couple of years ago her father, a lifetime military man, found he had trouble reeling in fish from the Chesapeake Bay, and shortly afterwards he could not hold an apple long enough to peel it. Soon he was diagnosed with ALS, or Lou Gehrig's disease.

His doctor, a respected ALS specialist at Johns Hopkins Hospital, said the disease had no known cause and no known cure, but the best hope was embryonic stem cell research. "He implored us, talk to your legislators, talk to your congressman," Hansen said.

Hansen had been out twice that day. In the morning she went to Seaford for her father's funeral. In the evening she went to Dover to testify in his name.