Cardins blast Steele for comparing stem cell research to the Holocaust

Friday, Feb. 10, 2006

ANNAPOLIS — Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, under heavy criticism from Jewish leaders and a key Democratic opponent in the race for U.S. Senate, apologized Friday for comparing embryonic stem cell research to Nazi experiments during the Holocaust.

Steele (R), a Catholic who is pro-life, made the remarks Thursday after being asked about embryonic stem cell research at a meeting with the Baltimore Jewish Council. He compared the science involved in embryonic stem cell research to Nazi experiments on Jews during World War II.

‘‘You of all folks know what happens when people decide they want to experiment on human beings, when they want to take your life and use it as a tool,” Steele told the group, according to news reports. ‘‘I know that as well in my community, out of our experience with slavery, and so I’m very cautious when people say this is the best new thing, this is going to save lives.”

U.S. Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, who is Jewish and who is running for the Senate, held a news conference Friday morning at the Annapolis City Dock to criticize Steele’s remarks. ‘‘Words have consequences,” Cardin (D-Dist. 3) of Pikesville said and reiterated his support for embryonic stem cell research.

Cardin’s wife, Myrna, who attended Steele’s speech at the Jewish Council, told reporters Friday that the lieutenant governor’s comments were ‘‘quite horrifying.”

‘‘He doesn’t have the right to compare ... stem cell research to the barbarity of the Holocaust,” Benjamin Cardin said. ‘‘This is an appropriate issue for us to debate. He’s wrong on stem cell research and he’s wrong on other issues.”

Steele’s press office released a ‘‘clarification statement,” and Steele apologized on WBAL-AM radio Friday morning.

‘‘When I was asked the question about stem cell research, I had just finished speaking at length about my first trip to Israel and the powerful memories I had of my visit to the holocaust museum there,” aSteele said in the statement. ‘‘Those memories have had a lasting impression on me but in no way did I intend to equate the two or trivialize the pain and suffering of more than 6 million Jews.””

Steele’s remarks — and the fallout that followed — represented a new front in the battle over embryonic stem cell research in Annapolis.

A bill that would direct $25 million for embryonic stem cell research over five years has passed a Senate committee, but is running into stiff resistance from Senate Republicans and conservative Democrats who are threatening a filibuster.

Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. (R) has earmarked $20 million for stem cell research to be disbursed by the Maryland Technology Development Corp., a quasi-public institution that helps high-tech companies get off the ground. The governor’s aides have said there are no restrictions on how the $20 million could be spent.

Senate and House sponsors of the embryonic stem cell research bill — Sen. Paula C. Hollinger and Del. Samuel I. ‘‘Sandy” Rosenberg (D-Dist. 41) of Baltimore, who are both Jewish — joined Cardin in criticizing Steele.

Ehrlich has the ability to ‘‘call off” the members of the Republican caucus who are threatening to filibuster the bill if he truly cared about embryonic stem cell research, said Hollinger (D-Dist. 11) of Owings Mills, who is running for the Third Congressional District. A coalition of conservative Democrats, however, has vowed to stick with the Republicans to prevent the bill from passing.

Cardin used the media attention focused on Steele to call on the lieutenant governor to engage on other issues such as the Bush administration’s nominees to the U.S. Supreme Court, the federal budget and other national matters.

‘‘We want the lieutenant governor talk about issues,” he said.

Ronald Halber, executive director Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, called Steele’s remarks ‘‘insensitive,” but he admired the lieutenant governor for quickly apologizing. Halber said that Steele called him Friday morning to personally apologize.

‘‘It shows a strength of character that he would apologize so promptly,” Halber said. ‘‘It was a very heartfelt apology and he was very sincere.”