Actor tackles emotional political role

The Baltimore Sun

CHEVY CHASE -- Michael J. Fox sits in a chair in a hotel room, in constant motion. Legs are crossed and uncrossed. Socks are repeatedly pulled up underneath trousers. His head moves side to side with reliable irregularity.

The movements would be arresting if not for the man behind them. He is focused. So determined to tell what he has to say.

Fox is bringing his Parkinson's disease, and a political message, to Maryland and other states where control of the U.S. Senate is in the balance: Virginia, Missouri, Ohio, Iowa and Wisconsin.

While politicians debate whether frozen embryos should be adopted, used for research or discarded, Fox wants to change people's minds.

Federal money for embryonic stem cell research can improve life for the sick and the disabled, he told a couple of hundred people backing Democrat Benjamin L. Cardin's bid for U.S. Senate yesterday. Fox said he will stump for candidates who support such funding and fight like crazy against those who don't.

"We are who are," Fox, 45, said in a Holiday Inn ballroom with Cardin by his side. "We have what we have. We want what we want, and we have a right to seek the representation that will get it for us."

The actor has become one of the most visible figures of the campaign season by thrusting himself into an emotional debate over emerging science and its moral implications.

Fox, the star of the Back to the Future movies and the situation comedies Family Ties and Spin City, is commanding a bigger stage these days as an advocate for embryonic stem cell research, targeting states that could elect senators favorable to science.

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele, the GOP's Senate nominee in Maryland, opposes embryonic stem cell research. He and Cardin are airing television ads on the subject. Fox is featured in Cardin's. In Steele's, his sister, Monica Turner, calls the Fox ad "deceptive, tasteless" and reveals that she has multiple sclerosis.

During an interview at the hotel before the Cardin event, Fox took the high road when asked about the Steele ad. He said he had not seen it in full.

"I don't want to get involved with any conflict with another patient," Fox said. "It just is what it is. I respect everyone's point of view. And I respect her right to express it. I really do. And more power to her. And I'm sure she's thought about it and prayed about it and done whatever process she has to do to reach the conclusion she's reached, and I fully respect that."

He had harsher words for a Steele campaign spokesman who, Fox said, called his ad in extremely poor taste.

"As far as the other goes - the campaign itself calling my ad in extremely poor taste - that leads you to conclusions about attitudes toward sick people and their symptomatology and their right to be involved in the process and their franchise to help shape government policy and the future of health and science in the country," he said. "That's strange to me. And certainly to millions of Americans."

Fox, whose Parkinson's foundation has raised about $70 million over the past five years, said he does not care about political labels. He said he would back, and has supported, members of both parties who favor embryonic stem cell research.

In Maryland yesterday, with with Fox by his side, Cardin promised that if he is elected Tuesday, he will promote the research, which is opposed by some conservatives and anti-abortion candidates because it involves the destruction of a human embryo.

"I am going to be pushing that bill with all the energy I have," Cardin said to applause.

On NBC's Meet the Press, Steele said he views the destruction of an embryo as the taking of a life and that, in keeping with his anti-abortion views, can't condone it. He suggested adoption for the 400,000 or more embryos in fertility clinics across the country.

Fox said yesterday that adoption could be a fine use for some of the embryos but that tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of others would remain. And embryonic stem cells can do something their adult stem cell counterparts cannot, Fox said, because they're more flexible.

Adult stem cells, research on which Steele and Bush support, are "cranky cells," Fox said.

"They already are what they are, they don't want to be anything else," he said. "When you try to get them to be something else, they don't like doing it. And when you get them to be something else, they don't want to stay that way."

Embryonic stem cells, in contrast, can become various cells in the human body. That is how the healing could start for the paralyzed, the Alzheimer's patient or the actor turned advocate who is trying to make Washington stand up and listen.

"To limit it to [adult stem cells] is like saying you can have a seat belt, but you can't have an air bag," Fox said. "We have the technology to have air bags. I'd like both. If that's OK."

Then he pauses, a wry smile spreading across his face. "Tasteless idea," he says.

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