OBITUARY: Christopher Reeve

With his chiselled features, square jaw and broad shoulders, Christopher Reeve was ideally cast as Superman in three films. But he never settled with being typecast as the Man of Steel, and he followed up this role with creditable performances in arthouse films like The Bostonians (1984) and The Remains of the Day (1995). But in the end, his biggest drama was his own life.

In 1995 he fell from a horse in a cross country riding competition. Suddenly paralyzed from the neck down, he became completely dependent upon his carers. What sustained him was the love of his wife Dana and his faith that some day, somehow, science would find a cure for spinal cord injury. He refused to stay idle. Using his organizational talent and celebrity status he lobbied hard for more money for research and rehabilitation of victims of spinal cord injury. He set up the Christopher Reeve Paralysis Foundation to raise money for targeted medical research and helped to establish the Reeve-Irvine Research Center at the University of California at Irvine. Thanks to some experimental therapies he experienced a modest improvement in his own condition, but eventually he died of a heart attack linked to a bedsore infection.

Reeve thought of himself as a man of hope. "To walk again. That's my New Year's resolution for 2003. Just as it was for 2002, 2001 and every year since I suffered my spinal cord injury. And if I don't walk this year, then I will resolve to do so again next January." This was his constant message: health at any price. He made "We can; we must; we will" the motto of his foundation.

In some ways, then, Reeve had n admirable qualities. No one questions the bravery, intelligence and iron will of a man who had to struggle even to breathe without a ventilator. And his global recognition as the face of disability was unparalleled. But there was a down side.

 First, consider his impact on California. Although John Kerry lost, one of the policies he campaigned on won by a landslide in America's biggest state: a referendum on embryonic stem cell research called Proposition 71. This authorised the state to issue US$3 billion in bonds to finance embryonic stem cell research over the next ten years. Reeve taped a TV commercial for the measure in the weeks before his death. Sympathy for him must have been a factor in the win. Especially sympathy amongst his Hollywood friends. Together with a few businessmen and prominent members of the IT industry like Bill Gates, they raised a war chest of $20 million to promote the measure, outspending the opposition by about 40 to 1. No wonder Californians thought it was good idea.

Unfortunately, if cures for spinal cord injury or other disorders like diabetes ever do emerge from embryonic stem cell research and therapeutic cloning, they are likely to be so expensive that only the children of the glitterati will be able to afford them. The taxes of the Californian poor will end up paying for research for the Hollywood rich. In the meantime, taxpayers in a debt-burdened state with a poor record in education and public health will be paying for research on a therapy which may never yield a single cure.

Second, Reeve's focus on one avenue of medical research -- therapeutic cloning -- distorted research priorities. He is a good example of how celebrities with disabilities can sometimes do more harm than good. One of the ironies of Reeve's plight was that his last role before his accident was playing a cop paralyzed by a stray bullet in the 1995 film Above Suspicion. To understand his role better, he actually visited a spinal cord trauma unit in Van Nuys, California. So he knew about paralysis, but it was only when he himself was confined to a wheelchair that he took an interest in spinal injuries.

According to prominent US bioethicist Arthur Caplan, Hollywood activism is not always helpful. "The problem with celebrity fundraising is simply that it is not fair," Caplan writes. "Celebrities who try to lobby Congress sometimes don't know the science well enough to know what is the best way to spend the nation's research budget. So the budget can get distorted and some people with real diseases that have a real shot at a cure if only the money were spent on them lose out." Besides, some distressing ailments are too "uncool" to attract support. "It is hard to imagine J-Lo or Jennifer Anniston leading a march on Washington to demand more research on urinary incontinence," quips Caplan.

And third, the tub-thumping of Reeve and other suffering celebrities have muffled dissenting voices amongst the disabled. Reeve's visit to Sydney last year was not greeted enthusiastically. Stem cells?, asked quadriplegics Erik Leipoldt and Maurice Corcoran. What about wheelchair ramps? What makes the lives of quadriplegics so difficult is "inadequate support services, de-humanising institutions, high levels of unemployment and exclusion from regular education" -- not restrictions on scientific research.

Some Australian and American activists were horrified by his focus on embryonic stem cells and therapeutic cloning. Take Joni Eareckson Tada, an American woman who broke her neck in a diving accident 35 years ago. She has all of Reeve's eloquence and courage -- but not his money and star status. Unlike Reeve, she is campaigning against embryo research.

"I find it shameful that some of my associates with disabilities are using their physical impairment as a plea to promote research cloning, and I am offended that words like 'helpless victim' and 'being trapped in a useless body' are used to sway the sympathies of legislators," she said recently.

Canonization ought to be the result of a long and exacting examination of a life journey. Before we put a halo on the Man of Steel, let's see whether his legacy is enduring and positive.

Michael Cook is the editor of  Mercator. 


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