Discussing his position on embryonic stem cell research with Baltimore Jewish leaders yesterday, Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele said he is "concerned about the destruction of human life" and made a comparison between the controversial science and experiments done on Jews during the Holocaust.
"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," said Steele, a Republican candidate for U.S. Senate, to a crowd of about 40 at a Baltimore Jewish Council board meeting. "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."
Steele's remarks, which followed a well-received speech about his trip to Israel in November, came in response to a board member's question about Steele's stance on embryonic stem cell research. His answer stunned many in the audience.
"If the lieutenant governor was drawing a comparison between stem cell research and human medical experimentation during the Holocaust, he must understand the pain this kind of analogy would inflict on survivors and their families," Art Abramson, executive director of the Baltimore Jewish Council, said in a statement to The Sun. "We absolutely reject any comparisons between ethical and lifesaving medical research, and the horrors committed by the Nazis in their evil drive to create a master race. We welcome any clarification Lt. Gov. Steele can offer about his remarks."
Steele later issued a statement expanding on his comment.
"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," Steele said. "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 six million Jews."
Jewish Council board member Michele Lax said after the lunch that Steele's comments revealed a "total lack of sensitivity."
"I was just really shocked and outraged," said Lax, a retired attorney from Owings Mills. "I can't believe that he could make a comparison to the Nazis with embryonic stem cell research, which saves lives. It just shows you what his true colors are and how far right wing he is."
Sam Penn, a retired businessman and the board member who questioned Steele, said he thought the lieutenant governor's answer was "ludicrous."
"The Holocaust, they were killing people," Penn said. "Stem cell research, we want to help people."
Abba Poliakoff, a Baltimore attorney and board member, said that while he disagrees with Steele's position on embryonic stem cell research, he was not offended by his remarks.
"If a person has a strong moral and ethical belief, and he takes his guidance and he takes his lesson from what happened in the Holocaust, how could I fault the person?" said Poliakoff, who attended the lunch.
Myrna Cardin, wife of Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin, a Baltimore Democrat also running in the race for Senate, attended the luncheon in her role as past board president. Through a Cardin campaign spokesman, she declined to comment, but the congressman issued a statement.
"Michael Steele's comments were offensive to both millions of Americans who stand to benefit from this research and to Holocaust survivors and their families," the congressman said. "Michael Steele has it backward. This is not about experimenting on humans. It is about saving lives. "
A Catholic and former seminarian who often speaks about his faith, Steele espouses strong moral views and is opposed to the death penalty and abortion. The Catholic Church teaches that life begins at conception and opposes the use of embryos in scientific research, saying a human being is destroyed in the process.
In answering Penn's question about embryonic stem cell research, Steele said that "the governor and I have pretty squarely laid out where we are on that."
"I'm very concerned when we start tinkering around with life," Steele said during the council event, adding, "I'm very concerned about the destruction of life."
A spokesman for Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. did not return a call for comment.
Steele expressed support for research using adult stem cells but said embryonic stem cell research could be "a very slippery slope."
The Maryland General Assembly is debating state funding for stem cell research, with Democratic lawmakers proposing $25 million a year for five years for a plan that emphasizes embryonic research. Their legislation outlaws human cloning and commits to using only those embryos that would otherwise be discarded from fertility clinics.
Ehrlich has proposed $20 million for stem cell research, saying that science should determine what types of research are funded. The Maryland Technology Development Corp., a quasi-public agency that falls within the state Department of Business and Economic Development, would administer the grants under the governor's plan. Ehrlich has also promised $13.5 million for a new center for regenerative medicine in Baltimore.
Scientists believe stem cell research could produce cures for a range of debilitating illnesses such as Parkinson's and Alzheimer's diseases. But many conservatives, as well as leaders of the Catholic Church, echo what Steele said - that adult stem cell research shows promise, while embryonic, which uses cells harvested from human embryos, is unethical.
Curt I. Civin, a cancer research expert at the Johns Hopkins University, expressed disappointment with Steele, saying that it doesn't sound like he stands with the governor, who has indicated an openness to embryonic research.
"I certainly would reject any comparison between what stem cell researchers want to do and the Holocaust," Civin said. "What stem cell researchers want to do is learn about diseases. ... This is so unlike the medical horrors that were done during the Holocaust that I can't even begin to compare them. We're trying to save lives by doing this."
Douglas Greenberg, executive director of the University of Southern California Shoah Foundation Institute, a group that was founded by director Steven Spielberg and has recorded the testimony of 52,000 Holocaust survivors, said he believes that politicians should never use the Holocaust to make a contemporary political point. He said he was pleased that Steele revised his remarks.
"What he originally said, whether he intended it to be or not, is an insult to those men and women who are still alive who survived these awful experiments," Greenberg said. "And also to the memory of 6 million murdered men and women and children."
In Nazi Germany, aides to Hitler conducted experiments on humans in hopes of producing a pure Aryan race, and killed millions of Jews, Gypsies and other minorities in ethnic-cleansing executions.
Bradley Wine, a member of Steele's Senate campaign finance committee and the Greater Washington chairman of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said that he knows the lieutenant governor well and that they have often discussed the shared experiences of Jews, Catholics and African-Americans. Wine also said he and Steele have discussed the "profound impact" his trip to Israel, an outreach effort to explore business opportunities with the state, had on him.
"I know that he would never utilize a reference to the Holocaust lightly or in a way designed to be political," Wine said.