Tuesday September 17, 2002
Oliver Burkeman in Bedford, New York
The actor Christopher Reeve, paralysed seven years ago in a riding accident, says he could have been close to walking again today were it not for the Bush administration's capitulation to the Catholic church over cloning, and profiteering by the US pharmaceutical industry.
"We've had a severe violation of the separation of church and state in the handling of what to do about this emerging technology," Reeve tells the Guardian in an exclusive interview published today, eight days before his 50th birthday, by when he once said he hoped to be back on his feet.
Reeve, most famous before his accident for his film role as Superman, says he is "angry and disappointed" that President Bush has obstructed developments in therapeutic cloning and stem cell research which might have led, by now, to human trials aimed at rebuilding the nervous systems of quadriplegic people.
"There are religious groups - the Jehovah's Witnesses, I believe - who think it's a sin to have a blood transfusion. Well, what if the president for some reason decided to listen to them, instead of to the Catholics, which is the group he really listens to in making his decisions about embryonic stem cell research?" Reeve says. "Where would we be with blood transfusions?"
Mr Bush acted unjustly, he says, in appointing a commission to examine therapeutic human cloning but then announcing his opposition to the technique before the commission could publish its report.
"That's simply not fair," says Reeve, who uses a wheelchair. "I just believe in fair play, so the bottom line, sitting here at 50, is: who knows what might have been accomplished if there had been fair play politically?"
If there had been full government support, "I think we could have been, and should now be, much further along with scientific research than we actually are, and I think I would have been in quite a different situation than I am today".
Reeve is supporting a bill proposed by several Democratic senators that would permit therapeutic cloning while punishing those who carried out reproductive cloning with up to 10 years in jail and a fine of up to $1m.
Progress has also been impeded by pharmaceutical companies using the courts to try to guarantee a bigger share of the profits from drugs under development, Reeve alleges.
"I know of one scientist who in 1996 was working, with rats, developing a drug that would cause regeneration in the central nervous system," he says.
"And the human trials were only delayed because of lawsuits brought against him by a small pharmaceutical company that had funded some of his early work and wanted a bigger piece of the pie now that he was about to work on humans. This is simply profiteering."
Richard Doerflinger, deputy director of "pro-life" activities for the US Conference of Catholic Bishops, called Reeve's criticisms "absurd". "Opposition to research cloning reaches far beyond any particular church," he said.
In the interview, Reeve also reveals details of his recovery so far, including how he has regained sensations of touch over 65% of his body, and how, with electrical stimulation to make his muscles contract, he can pedal an exercise bike at 10mph for an hour. He can move fingers on both hands, and straighten out his leg against resistance.
"To feel touch, after years of going without it, is very meaningful," he says. "It makes a huge difference. It means I can feel my kids' touch. It makes all the difference in the world."
Of his disability, Reeve says: "Am I in despair about it? No, I'm not.
Despair is a very bleak word."
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2002