Posted: June 15, 2005


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

When science and religion clash, their battleground is politics. The state Senate did its part Tuesday to keep Delaware central in the epic nationwide struggle over embryonic stem cell research.

The senators were faced with unresolvable arguments asking them to decide whether the research should be regarded as life-giving or life-taking -- as a scientific field that has dazzling potential for breakthroughs in treating disease and injury or as a moral wasteland that kills and harvests what the detractors call "embryonic children."

The Senate was considering a bill that would encourage the research to be carried out in Delaware, putting the state in a vanguard that includes California, Harvard University and its own U.S. Rep. Michael N. Castle, the Republican congressman who bucked the White House to be a chief backer of federal stem-cell legislation.

It was a debate that confounded the usual splits in state politics -- Democrat/Republican, upstate/downstate, even conservative/moderate/liberal. The prime sponsor was Sen. Robert L. Venables, a Sussex County Democrat so conservative he could not move more rightward without supposing the earth is flat.

"This is a very controversial bill, even a little controversial to myself," Venables said. "I ask that the senators vote their conscience."

By a wide margin, the Senate approved the legislation in a 14-7 roll call available by clicking here. State Rep. Deborah D. Hudson, a Greenville Republican who is Venables' main co-sponsor, hopes to have the measure, which is designated as Senate Bill 80, approved by the state House of Representatives before the legislature quits for the year on June 30. If so, Gov. Ruth Ann Minner, a two-term Democrat, is committed to signing it into law.

Delaware's decision-making on the bill is significant enough that Castle sent two of his top staff members -- Jeffrey A. Dayton, his district director, and Elizabeth B. Wenk, his deputy chief of staff -- to Dover to watch the Senate 's floor action.

Legislative Hall is not known for its absorbing debates. They tend to have the depth and decorum of a hot dog eating contest, but this one was different. The Senate took more than two and a half hours for a discussion that was thoughtful and civil.

It was held before a full Senate gallery occupied largely by about 80 people brought there from Hockessin by Father John Grimm, a Catholic priest, in a polite display against passage, and it left Lt. Gov. John C. Carney Jr., a two-term Democrat, relieved he did not have to cast a vote himself.

Under the state constitution, Carney presides over the Senate but votes only to break ties. "I didn't have to vote on it, so I didn't come to an ultimate conclusion," he said after the debate. "I was leaning toward supporting it."

Even Venables himself was dreadfully conflicted, believing life begins at conception but unable to renounce so promising a technology -- not after losing a 14-year-old son in 1970 to a brain injury that medicine could not treat then but can now. He said he did not sleep the night before the Senate debate as he hoped in vain for a dream that would bring him a clarifying revelation.

"If God gave us the knowledge and the brain power to alleviate suffering, we owe it to humanity to have these breakthroughs," Venables said. "The bill sets up strong guidelines to do this ethically and morally."

The legislation would give the state the authority to regulate embryonic stem cell research, which is already legal, while also banning human cloning. It would give scientists here availability to excess embryos that are donated by parents from in vitro fertilization procedures and otherwise authorized to be discarded.

Researchers hope to find new medical therapies for a wide range of human terrors, such as diabetes, cancer, Parkinson's disease, Alzheimer's and spinal cord injuries, but opponents argue it is morally wrong to sacrifice embryos.

"You cannot ignore the means used to achieve it," said state Sen. John C. Still III, the Republican minority leader. "There is a moral boundary there."

The Senate, however, found Venables made the more persuasive case, which he fortified with scientific experts like David S. Weir, the director of the Delaware Biotechnology Institute at the University of Delaware.

Even more tellingly, Venables brought in as witnesses people whom the senators knew, making it uncomfortable to look them in the eye and vote against their pleas in favor of the research.

The Senate heard from D. Ken Cox, a former Kent County Democratic chair who described the nightmarish helplessness of learning last summer than his son Dustin, then 11, had diabetes. It also heard from Nancy Charron, a retired newspaper reporter who also worked for the state House.

Charron was diagnosed eight years ago with Parkinson's -- a disease, as she reminded the senators, that former Speaker Charles L. Hebner died from.

"There are lots of people whose time line is much shorter than mine, and I ask that you help them," Charron said. "It could be one of the most important votes you ever make in your life."

As intense as the debate was, it was never uncivil. Maybe it was because the Senate knew Venables had counted his votes accurately and would prevail, or maybe it was because it is still the way politics is conducted here, as an exchange on the Senate floor clearly showed.

As the debate passed the two-hour mark, Venables found himself with a dire urge for a break. State Sen. Charles L. Copeland, a Republican who opposed the bill, happened to be speaking when Venables could wait no more.

On the way out, Venables walked by Copeland, touched him chummily on the arm and asked him to keep talking until Venables returned. With a laugh Copeland told the Senate what was going on and obligingly vamped for time.