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Senator leads fight against stem cell ban

Photo by Andrew Cutraro. Missouri Sen. Chuck Graham confers with Sen. Matt Bartle, R-Lee's Summit, at the end of Thursday's session in Jefferson City.

By Matthew Franck

St. Louis Post-Dispatch


Sen. Chuck Graham's position at the front lines of a battle over stem cell research is owed largely to the fact a car traveling at teenage speed hit a patch of gravel after a high school track meet.

Back then -- 23 years before he would become the first paraplegic member of the Missouri Senate -- Graham was an invincible 16-year-old.

So he took no thought to rocketing a car full of his friends down a highway in Pike County at 85 mph.

Then came the gravel and the flips. And with no seat belt to hold him in, Graham was ejected and crushed under the rolling machinery. The others would be fine, but Graham has not walked since and he figures he never will.

He has been putting the accident behind him ever since.

He went to college, directed his athleticism toward wheelchair sports, and eventually got a job with the University of Missouri educating businesses on federal disability law. That led to a successful campaign for the Missouri House in 1996, and a seat in the Senate this year.

Now, Graham, D-Columbia, is informally leading the Senate effort to defeat legislation that would ban one form of stem cell research. For some, the cloning-related research offers hope for curing disease and paralysis. For others, it constitutes the destruction of life.

This evening, Graham and other members of the Senate Judiciary Committee could determine the bill's fate. Some lawmakers say their decision will be affected, at least in part, by Graham's influence.

Sen. Chris Koster, R-Harrisonville, who some view as a swing vote on the issue, responded succinctly to the question of whether Graham's presence on the committee is weighing on his stem cell decision.

"The answer is, yes, " he said.

Resists being typecast

In his political career, Graham has sponsored a few bills related to disability. One measure gave disabled Medicaid recipients more control over their in-home care. For the most part, he has resisted being typecast by fellow lawmakers.

"I wanted to run for the Legislature because I wanted to work on issues that had nothing to do with my disability, " Graham said. "I never wanted that to wholly define who I was."

So it's with some discomfort that Graham has found himself out front on stem cells. Through it, he has wrestled over how much of his personal life he should insert in the debate.

"I am struggling with it, " he said. "I don't want the issue to be about me."

And yet, Graham said he couldn't hide the fact that he's invested in the issue, nor can he cloak his passion for wanting to keep the research legal.

"I am a physical example of why they are talking about this, " he said.

Graham's brother also gives him reason to fight the bill. Just 18 months after his own accident, his brother injured his spinal cord in an auto accident. He now uses a cane.

Graham wasn't reluctant to make stem cells a key part of his recent Senate campaign. In it, he accused his opponent, Mike Ditmore, of flip-flopping on whether he supported stem cell research involving cloning. Some say three weeks of ads on the issue may have been the difference in the tight race.

Ditmore said he believes Graham misrepresented his views on stem cells. But Ditmore said he never felt that his opponent used the issue to drum up voter sympathy.

"I can't say that he overplayed it, " he said.

Things he'll never do

As he works to defeat the stem cell bill, there are things Graham said he'll never do.

He won't, for example, criticize those who oppose the stem cell research of having narrow religious views, as some have done in testimony before the committee.Graham said he recognizes that for many the issue centers entirely on their definition of life, which he accepts as a legitimate stand to take.

"There's no science to say they're wrong, " he said.

Graham said he also won't play to the emotions of his colleagues telling them that if they ban the stem cell research they'd be killing his only chance to walk someday.

To say that would be to imply that he's breathlessly waiting for a cure. In truth, Graham said, he's long given up on the chance of walking.

He said as much during the committee's stem cell debate. And in a sense, those comments set him apart from many of those who told lawmakers of how stem cell research is their best hope.

Graham said he respects the passion of those like the late Christopher Reeve, who work tirelessly for more research while keeping their bodies in condition in the event of a breakthrough. But he said he's approached things differently.

"I think they have a focus on one thing and that's finding a cure and walking again, " he said. "Whereas I may focus on a variety of things that have to do with living, and some of them have nothing to do with my disability."

Having said that, Graham said he shares a perspective on stem cells that perhaps only the disabled can have.

He knows what it's like to be an indestructible teenager one minute and in the next -- after a few words from a doctor -- face a life of paralysis.

He's been offered the same thin comfort that's given today: That a cure is probably just five years away.

And he's watched that time expire, over and over again. First, his hope hung on bionics, then on nerve transplants. Five years ago, he learned of stem cells.

Graham's personal perspective is what some disability advocates say is often missing in elected bodies.

Andrew Imparato, president of the American Association of People with Disabilities, said lawmakers like Graham have an instant credibility on disability issues, not unlike how female lawmakers might have credibility on issues affecting women.

Graham's influence

Jorgen Schlemeier, a lobbyist who is representing Washington University in its effort to defeat the stem cell bill, said he's spoken to several senators about Graham's influence. A few, he said, say they've thought of Graham quite a bit, imagining how great it would be for their colleague to one day stand up and walk.

"I don't know how you can ignore it, " Schlemeier said.

Sen. Rob Mayer, R-Dexter, is among the members of the Judiciary Committee that's not said how he'll vote on the stem cell bill. He said he's relying mainly on science to work through the issue. But he said Graham's presence on the committee has been a factor.

"It may make you focus more on the hope it creates for people who are paralyzed, " he said.

Sen. John Loudon, R-Ballwin, said he's still firmly in favor of a ban on stem cell research involving cloning, even though he agrees that Graham's perspective is compelling.

But Loudon said many people with disabilities are opposed to the cloning research, and their comments before the committee were equally powerful. Like them, Loudon believes adult stem cell research -- not cloning-based research -- offers the best route toward finding cures.

As the issue has been debated in committee, Graham said he's taken a low-key approach, speaking only occasionally. Some of his fellow committee members say he's not even talked to them one-on-one about the issue.

If the bill moves beyond the Senate committee this week, Graham said he's ready to intensify his efforts to kill it. He's already predicting a heated debate on the Senate floor.

But for now, one of his fellow senators says Graham says a lot even when silent.

"Sen. Graham's presence is very important, " said Sen. Charles Wheeler, D-Kansas City. "He's a straightforward advocate just by being there."

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