Posted: June 23, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Not all of the words spoken Wednesday in Legislative Hall about embryonic stem cell research had as much effect as a shattered glass desktop.

It seemed supernatural. It happened as the House Health & Human Development Committee was holding a hearing in the state House of Representatives chamber in Dover on a bill that would encourage the stem cell research to be carried out in Delaware.

The legislation, Senate Bill 80, was approved by the state Senate last week, and its backers want to get it through the House to the governor's desk before the General Assembly quits for the year on June 30. If they do, Gov. Ruth Ann Minner is committed to signing it into law.

The debate has been contentious and emotional. Legislators have been beseeched on one side by proponents who see the research as potential deliverance for themselves or family members from serious disease and injury, including diabetes, cancer, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's and spinal cord injury. The lawmakers have been besieged on the other side, most notably the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, by opponents who regard the research as the callous destruction of life.

This was the intense atmosphere charging the committee hearing and the hundred or so people in attendance. Out of nowhere, it suddenly became even more intense.

Without any known cause, one of the standard-issue glass tops on a front-row desk cracked like ice on a lake, exploding into a shower of jagged pieces that covered the desk and cascaded to the floor.

Everyone was startled. No one was hurt. No one had any idea why it happened.

State Rep. Pamela S. Maier, a Pike Creek Valley Republican who was chairing the hearing, tried to go on but eventually had to call for a break so a maintenance crew could clean up the shards that were slick enough to slip on.

At first people made shaky jokes that the glass shattered because of the bishop. Michael A. Saltarelli, the leader of the Wilmington diocese, did not attend the hearing, but he came to Dover beforehand to hold a prayer session on the Legislative Hall steps.

Saltarelli was joined by about 100 people, almost all of them melding religion and politics with their rosaries and their buttons reading, "Stop S.B. 80." Coincidentally it was the feast day of St. Thomas More, the patron saint of statesmen, politicians, judges and lawyers, so the bishop led a perfect litany for the occasion.

"Intercede for our statesmen, politicians, judges and lawyers, that they may be courageous and effective in their defense and promotion of the sanctity of human life," the prayer went.

Did Saltarelli have the power to pixilate glass? After people thought about it for a moment, they thought maybe it was not the bishop. Maybe it was Bobby Quillen.

George Robert Quillen was a beloved state representative, a Harrington Republican who died last year at 75 from cancer, one of the diseases under study by the stem cell researchers. The desk with the broken glass top had been Quillen's.

It was too eerie. "Bobby Quillen did that," said state Rep. Deborah D. Hudson, a Greenville Republican who is the lead House sponsor of the stem cell bill.

The desk belongs this session to state Rep. Nancy H. Wagner, a Dover Republican. No one was sitting there when the glass disintegrated, although a witness who had spoken in favor of the bill was a step or so away from returning to it when the top blew apart.

At the end of the hearing, which lasted nearly three hours, the committee voted to send the legislation to the full House for its consideration. It seemed almost secondary to how spooked people were because of the glass.

The bishop or Bobby or something else? No one knows, and no one wants to be wrong about it, either.