Stem cell debate hits home

Several Md. lawmakers tell deeply personal stories to touch colleagues' hearts and perhaps gain their votes

General Assembly


Del. Marilyn R. Goldwater has been reluctant to say anything about the blood cancer she was diagnosed with six years ago during a routine physical.

But with millions of dollars of state money for stem cell research on the line in legislative proposals and a separate plan favored by the governor, Goldwater, 79, went public last week. She took a deep breath and in a matter-of-fact tone, without tears or dramatics, told colleagues on the House Health and Government Operations Committee that she suffers from an incurable disease and needs their help.

"Stem cell research is the one hope I have for myself and others like me," said Goldwater, a Montgomery County Democrat.

As they gear up for debates this week over whether the state should spend millions yearly on stem cell research, many Annapolis lawmakers are relying on personal experience as much as political ideology to guide their decisions.

And in an effort to move votes - and maybe even touch a few hearts - lawmakers who have suffered privately or whose loved ones are ailing are speaking out about the controversial science that has polarized Maryland's General Assembly and state legislatures across the country.

"This probably has hit home more than any other issue I've ever voted on," Goldwater said during an interview yesterday.

When she was first diagnosed with multiple myeloma, a cancer of the plasma cell, Goldwater was given two to three years to live. In the time since, she's taken Thalidomide, steroids and antibiotics. She said she's often tired but otherwise feels OK. She believes that good genes and a positive outlook keep her going.

The biggest change in her life, said Goldwater, who has been married for 57 years and has one granddaughter, is that she's no longer putting things off. She and her husband are planning a long-anticipated trip to Hawaii after the Assembly session ends next month.

"I have managed to lead a fairly normal life because I'm a very determined person," Goldwater told the health committee before members voted last week for a House funding bill.

Del. Robert A. Costa, an Anne Arundel County Republican and fellow health committee member, also spoke candidly before the vote. He said he and his wife struggled to have a second child. After losing two pregnancies, they turned to in vitro fertilization.

Costa, 47, said that of the 20 eggs that were fertilized, four were implanted in his wife. One took. And today, a picture of Jacob Costa, 7, wearing a baseball uniform and the stern expression of an aspiring major league player, sits next to Costa's desk in his House office.

After the successful fertility treatment, he and his wife were faced with a decision they hadn't expected: What to do with the remaining embryos?

It would have cost Costa, a firefighter, thousands of dollars a year to freeze and store the embryos - an expense not covered by insurance. So, the couple signed a form allowing the embryos to be disposed of, and were required to watch to verify that they were destroyed.

The legislative proposals would use state money to fund research on embryos that, like the Costas', would otherwise be discarded by fertility clinics. Costa said he spoke about his situation to let colleagues know that research would have been a better alternative.

"We would've been more than happy to donate them," Costa said.

Costa cast his vote in committee against the House bill because he doesn't believe embryonic stem cell proposals should be given preferential treatment. Instead, he said wants the best plans to receive state funding, and that could include projects that explore the benefits of adult stem cells.

Still, Costa, who was raised as a Roman Catholic but attends a Baptist church, said he wanted the bill to get out of committee. He saved his `no' vote until after colleagues had weighed in, so he could be sure the bill would pass.

"If I had to be the deciding vote, I would've voted for it," he said.

For Del. Peter A. Hammen, the Baltimore Democrat who chairs the health committee, the stem cell research debate got personal a year ago with a phone call from his wife, Michelle.

What had started as a tingling in her toes became a dull numbness that invaded the lower half of her body. After falling a couple of times, she went to the doctor.

X-rays and MRIs could not solve the mystery of what was ailing the hairstylist. A Johns Hopkins specialist eventually told Michelle Hammen, 38, that she had multiple sclerosis, a degenerative nerve disease.

"That was her first shock," Peter A. Hammen said in an interview yesterday. "What does this mean? What's going to happen to me?"

The second shock was the treatment, a weekly self-administered shot to the thigh that left her nauseated and alternately sweating profusely or with the shivers.

Hammen said that as a lawmaker, he feels empowered to help his wife and others like her.

"The bottom line for me is, I'm living with someone who I love deeply who potentially could be cured as a result of this research," Hammen said.

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