Posted: Aug. 15, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle is a lawyer, not a doctor. Not only that, but the seven-term Republican wryly concedes he is "someone who did not do well in biology."

It made him the last person to expect that an invitation to the staff members at the A.I. du Pont Hospital for Children would draw dozens and dozens of them to the lobby of the world-famous institute in Rockland to hear him talk about medical research.

"I didn't think everybody was going to be everybody," Castle quipped.

It was Tuesday, Aug. 9, a date chosen on purpose, and not because it was the day Richard Nixon left office in 1974. Castle was there to talk about embryonic stem cell research on the fourth anniversary of President George W. Bush's policy-making announcement to restrict federal funding for this dawning scientific field.

Despite his regard for the president from his own party -- "a very decent and reasonable person, just not as reasonable on this issue as I would like him to be" -- Castle has emerged as a nationally recognized advocate for the research.

It is a reach for a decidedly practical politician, the kind who turned people into coin collectors with the 50-states quarters project he sponsored and wants to preserve the C&D Canal area as a recreational magnet.

Castle did not exactly choose the stem cell issue. Instead, it chose him.

About half the visits to his office were health-related matters, brought to his attention by caregivers and patients concerned with diabetes, Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, cancer, spinal cord injuries and other afflictions -- treatment for which is the goal of stem-cell researchers.

Castle himself has a close friend who uses a wheel chair because of a car accident years ago. "I can't talk to her without thinking about it," he said.

In addition, Castle found that in a country of roughly 300 million people, more than a third of them have a disease or injury that perhaps could benefit from the research, meaning it could affect virtually every family.

"It's those constituents coming and knocking on our door and saying, can we help, and yeh, I think we can help. I don't mean to over-promise. I don't know what's going to come from this, but I don't talk to a researcher that doesn't think this has potential," Castle said.

"To think that we are not offering them every single possible opportunity, to my thinking is wrong."

If only the science did not involve human embryos. Bishop Michael A. Saltarelli, the influential leader of the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington, led prayers outside Legislative Hall in Dover in June to defend the "sanctity of life" against embryonic stem cell research, and the president called it "the leading edge of a series of moral hazards" in his speech laying out federal policy four years ago.

The tantalizing promise that the research could save lives is opposed by the premise that it would destroy life. There has not been room for compromise, even though the embryos to be used would be the ones that were declared excess from fertility treatments and going to be discarded, anyway.

Castle's commitment has him involved at both the federal and state level. In Washington he is a prime sponsor for legislation that would create an ethical framework for federal funding. In Dover, Castle has put the influence of his office, his know-how as a former two-term governor and staff assistance behind a bill that would encourage and regulate stem cell research in Delaware.

It has been slow going in both places. The politics has proved to be nearly as delicate as the science.

Castle has moved the federal legislation forward, seemingly against all odds. Despite the threat of a presidential veto, he persuaded the House Republican leadership to let the bill come to the floor, where it was approved 238-194 in May, and he saw key opposition in the Senate unexpectedly melt away late last month when Republican Majority Leader Bill Frist came around.

"How many times do you have a bill where your opposition is your own [House] majority leader and beat him? Or get legislation passed when your own president is opposing it?" Castle said.

The state bill stalled in June at the end of the 2005 legislative session, even though it appeared to have the momentum to be approved before the General Assembly broke until January.

The measure has the benefit of an unusual partnership. Sen. Robert L. Venables, a conservative Democrat from Sussex County, introduced it in the Senate, and Rep. Deborah D. Hudson, a moderate Republican from a Greenville-Hockessin district, is the lead sponsor in the House of Representatives.

Hudson is known as an adept legislator, a prime backer of major efforts like the smoking ban and the gross-receipts tax cut, but Venables has more of a reputation for stopping legislation, not starting it, primarily because of his unmovable opposition to a gay rights bill. His support guaranteed that the stem cell measure would be taken seriously.

The bill blitzed through the Senate in mid-June on a 14-7 roll call, attracting votes from Democrats and Republicans, upstate and downstate, and across the political spectrum. Its backers counted enough House votes for passage, and Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a second-term Democrat, was committed to signing it into law, but it never got to the House floor.

Although a lobbyist for the Catholic diocese claimed victory, there was more to it than that.

AstraZeneca, the pharmaceutical company with a campus north of Wilmington, mounted a late, backroom effort to get legislators to back away. It took hold in the Republican majority caucus, where enough representatives, already uneasy about voting on the bill because of the high emotion on both sides, were looking for a reason to postpone the debate. The caucus agreed to put it off until January.

AstraZeneca argued the bill would impose state regulation on private industry and would not protect the confidentiality of its intellectual property, according to Rachel Bloom-Baglin, a company spokeswoman.

Castle was dismissive of both AstraZeneca and his fellow Republicans who forced the delay. "We don't think it's a problem. We don't think AstraZeneca understood the legislation. There are very good Republicans who are not supporting this and should be, and I question whether they truly understand it," he said.

State approval probably is a matter of time. Not so federal approval, not with the presidential veto looming. Still, Castle is persevering. His bill already has progressed beyond expectations, so on the fourth anniversary of Bush's stem cell speech, the congressman was still at it, stumping for passage and sending the president a letter, asking him to reconsider his veto threat.

"I've never been involved in an issue that's so significant," Castle said. "I have not given up on this."