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Cloning bill off House agenda

April 27, 2004
Patrick Jackson
The News Journal

A bill that would regulate cloning of human embryos for scientific research in Delaware has been withdrawn and probably will not resurface until after the November elections.

The bill, proposed by Sen. Robert L. Venables Sr., D-Laurel, would have allowed scientists to use cloning to grow human embryos for the harvesting of stem cells needed to research treatments for a number of diseases. It would have banned human cloning for reproduction.

Venables said Monday he asked the House to drop Senate Bill 55 after talking to staff, scientists and House members who said they were worried about the measure coming up in an election year.

"I think the science is on our side," Venables said. "But I don't think we could have gotten it through this year."

The bill was supported by businesses and scientists and was viewed as a measure that could aid Delaware's efforts to attract biotechnology companies to the state.

But the legislation was opposed by the Catholic Diocese of Wilmington and others on ethical grounds. Opponents contend it is morally wrong to develop embryonic life, harvest stem cells and then destroy the embryo. They cited scientists who think adult stem cells taken from living organs or from umbilical cord blood can be used just as effectively.

"This is a momentary victory, a short-term win, and we expect this will be back," said Christopher DiPietro, a lobbyist for the Diocese of Wilmington. "It only becomes a final victory when it's voted down once and for all."

Venables said he intends to revive the bill next year.

"It's an important issue, and it can do a lot of good, but it takes time to build support for something like this," Venables said. "I've been trying to get this through for two or three years, and I'll be back next year, unless the science goes so fast that the need for legislation is outdated."

Many scientists think embryonic stem cells - human blanks that have not yet specialized into a particular type of tissue - hold tremendous promise in developing cures for illnesses such as Parkinson's disease and multiple sclerosis. The bill was needed because Delaware law does not specifically address cloning for research or for reproduction, Venables said.

Rep. Deborah Hudson, R-Fairthorne, said she was surprised by the withdrawal of the bill and hopes scientists and those opposed to cloning for research can come to an understanding on the issue.

"But in my opinion, this is the kind of issue that shouldn't even come up in a state legislature," she said. "It should be a federal question."

President Bush has banned the use of federal money to create new stem cells from embryonic cloning, but there is no federal law governing the practice. The U.S. Congress has been unable to reach a consensus.

As of January, nine states had passed cloning laws ranging from outright bans to regulations similar those Venables had been seeking. Venables' proposal was similar to a law passed last year in New Jersey. Cloning bills are pending in 25 other states.

The Rev. John Grimm, who advises the local Catholic diocese on scientific issues, said he thinks a delay in considering a cloning bill will give researchers a better chance to make their case that adult stem cells hold the most promise. The church does not object to people donating adult stem cells for research.

"We think using adult stem cells instead of cloning embryonic cells will be the next big thing," he said. "We have trepidation when we say no to science, but in this case we do so because we think it is immoral and that there is a moral alternative available."

Delaware has been trying to build its scientific base to become a leader in biotechnology. Judy McKinney-Cherry, the head of the Delaware Economic Development Office, said the demise of the cloning bill should have no immediate effects on state biotech efforts.

"We've been focusing most of our efforts on plant and animal research, not human research," she said. "This bill shouldn't hurt that and may increase our focus on plant and animal research."

Copyright © 2004, The News Journal