Posted: May 16, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Stem cell research is not up to medical breakthroughs yet, but its political breakthroughs are coming along just fine.

At the congressional level U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, a national leader of that hardy but dwindling set of Republicans at the moderate middle, has reached across the Capitol, the country and the political spectrum to work on legislation encouraging the exploration of this scientific frontier.

Castle's partner is U.S. Sen. Orrin Hatch, a Utah Republican whose conservative credentials have not prevented his involvement in this medical field, which is based on human embryos -- about as skittish a subject as there is on the political right and its "culture of life."

As unusual as that pairing is, it has nothing on the alliance that has come together at home, a concord of federal and state, Republican and Democrat, upstate and downstate, centrist and conservative, the state Senate and the state House of Representatives.

That spectacle was on display Monday morning in Wilmington at a press conference to showcase new legislation, designated as Senate Bill 80, drafted to put Delaware at the forefront of the stem cell research that its backers believe could revolutionize medical science.

Castle was there, offering the prestige of his office to the state endeavor, which is led by the odd-couple combination of state Rep. Deborah D. Hudson, a Greenville Republican, and state Sen. Robert L. Venables, a Laurel Democrat.

Hudson comes to the issue naturally -- out of interest in it. Her politics are centrist, her concerns about public health already demonstrated. She took a lead in the passage of the smoking ban, and she voted for the bill outlawing gay discrimination.

Stem cell research is a comfortable fit for Hudson's district, which stretches from Chateau Country to the Kirkwood Highway. Anyone living there is likely to be familiar with the thinking that better living comes through chemistry.

Venables is an entirely different matter. He is a conservative's conservative. He showed up at the press conference with a lapel pin in the design of an interlocking U.S. flag and Christian cross.

Venables is one of the Senate bulwarks stopping the gay anti-discrimination bill. In disregard of his party affiliation but in recognition of his politics, he once was invited to the White House as part of a national delegation of legislators to meet with President George W. Bush, whose administration has restricted stem-cell research.

His mere presence at a press conference all the way north from Laurel to Wilmington showed that something special was going on.

Venables came to the stem-cell issue from a conservative bent to ban human cloning. Then he met with David S. Weir, the director of the Delaware Biotechnology Institute at the University of Delaware, and learned about the research, appreciating both its potential to relieve suffering and its use only of human embryos that otherwise would be discarded.

Venables, who is a Methodist, talked to ministers from his church before he decided to work on the legislation. "I took a stand, and it took me a long time to do it," he said. "My conscience is going to be clear."

Legislation in Dover often seems slap-dash and knee-jerk, but not this bill. It came together through a level of study and consideration rarely seen in Legislative Hall.

The bill was crafted in consultation with Weir's institute and Castle's office. It bans human cloning but provides a scientific and legal framework for research in Delaware on embryonic stem cells, regarded as the key to new medical therapies for a number of diseases and injuries, including diabetes, cancer, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's and spinal cord injuries.

It creates a Human Stem Cell Research Advisory Committee, including scientists, medical ethicists and members of the public, to review research projects, and it sets criminal and civil penalties for policy violations.

The bill is a new alloy of science and religion, ethics and criminal law, research advances and economic development opportunities, not to mention the way it already has brought together Republican red and Democratic blue.

"This is a red-state version of stem cell research," Hudson said. "The goal of Senate Bill 80 is life."

Castle predicted the bill would become model legislation for other states. It is likely to receive favorable treatment in Dover, possibly passing before the General Assembly ends its 2005 session on June 30, with Venables as the lead sponsor in the Democratic-majority Senate and Hudson in the Republican-majority House.

"I think it will zip through the Senate and the House, and the governor has told me she will sign it," Venables said.

There was another speaker at the press conference -- Michael Woicekowski, a 14-year-old who will be a freshman next year at Brandywine High School. He has juvenile diabetes.

Since he was four, his life has been injections, dietary restrictions, trips to the school nurse, a Thanksgiving dinner one year he was too sick to eat, and the constant realization that he has more to fear from his disease than the ice hockey he plays for the Junior Blue Hens -- "I have a better chance of dying from diabetes than ice hockey."

Woicekowski wants stem cell research with its potential to cure diabetes to proceed.

His words drew special attention from Venables. The legislator had a son named Jim, who was hit by a car in 1970 when he was 11, three years younger than Woicekowski is today, and he died from a brain injury that doctors did not have the technology to treat then, although they do now. It informed Venables' thinking on stem cell research.

"Some of you people probably wonder how someone with my background could ever get involved in this. I thought about parents that lose children," Venables said.

"If there is a God, and I think there is, then He wouldn't be very happy if we didn't do it."