Michael J. Fox Fires Back at Critics

ByABC News

Oct. 29, 2006 — -- Actor Michael J. Fox jokes that he may be short in stature, but he's still enough of a "big boy" to withstand criticism over his backing of embryonic stem cell research -- including comments by radio personality Rush Limbaugh initially questioning whether Fox may have exaggerated Parkinson's disease tremors in a televised political ad.

The ad in question had Fox backing Democrat Claire McCaskill in her effort to unseat Sen. Jim Talent, R-Mo., and critics have denounced Fox as a mouthpiece for Democrats. He denied that charge to ABC News in a Sunday exclusive interview on "This Week."

Fox said that rather than partisan politics, he is most concerned with widening federally funded embryonic stem cell research -- and supporting candidates who would do so.

"I'm not a shill for the Democratic Party," Fox told ABC News' George Stephanopoulos. "I approached them. I sat down to find out what candidates are pro-stem cell in races where they're opposed by anti-stem cell candidates. And I had no predisposition toward Democrats or Republicans. It'd be fine with me either way.

"In fact," he added, "a Republican candidate who's pro-stem cell would be someone I'd really like to talk to. And in fact in the past I've supported, I've done commercials for [Sen.] Arlen Specter, [R-Pa.] who is a very aggressive pro-stem cell champion."

Following is the text of Fox's interview with Stephanopoulos.

Watch "This Week" to see the interview for yourself. Check your local listing for airtimes.

George Stephanopoulos: Michael, good to see you again.

Michael J. Fox: Thank you. Good to see you.

Stephanopoulos: You know, you made about as much news as President Bush this week. Did you expect to get hit this hard?

Fox: No, I mean, I expected there to be a swift response of some kind. But I mean, you know, particularly from the talk show group, when I heard that response, I was like, "What, are you kidding me?" I was, I mean, "You kidding me?" I was--

Stephanopoulos: You're talking about Rush Limbaugh?

Fox: Yes. It seemed just so, "No, it can't be."

Stephanopoulos: You couldn't believe it, but your mom was mad.

Fox: My mom was. Yes, she was not happy. Well, because she was with me when I shot the ads. And, she was visiting. And it's uncomfortable for her to see me not feeling well. And she knew, because what I was dealing with at that time, which was dyskinesia, which was a reaction to the medication. She knew how hard I was struggling to stay still. I truly wanted to stay still. It's more comfortable. It's not comfortable to be moving around. The goal is to be as calm as I can. So she was noting that struggle to my friends who were with her while I taped.

So then to hear that reaction made her livid. She was just, and, the way Irish moms can get, you know.

Stephanopoulos: Or Greek moms.

How does it work? You know, you take the medication. How do you know when you're going to be more in control or more out?

Fox: The thing is that, you know -- again, I've been diagnosed for 15 years, which means I probably have had the disease for 18, 19 years. They say by the time you show symptoms that 80 percent of the dopamine-producing cells in your brain are gone.

So, for example, when I first disclosed I had, it was after keeping it secret for seven years. I disclosed it partly because there was going to be no hiding it anymore pretty soon. And for all those years, I'd masked it with medication.

But then what happens is the medication, after all, loses its efficacy and what happens is, in order to get the benefits from it, which is increased mobility, less tremor, you start to get what's called dyskinesia, which is this movement. And it's preferable in a way to the other--

Stephanopoulos: Right.

Fox: … Because you have, without it at this point, this way: If I didn't medicate it at all, I'd have a masked face, I'd have very limited movement, I'd have a very difficult time speaking, a la Mohammed Ali or similar. So if I want to be articulate, if I want to speak, this comes with the package. So--

Stephanopoulos: That's the tradeoff.

Fox: That's the tradeoff.

So I either sound good or look good.


I don't get the whole package.

You know, it's a constant balancing act, and there are things to go with it. Sitting still in a chair and being involved in an interrogatory, no matter how friendly or unfriendly or whatever, just the stress that it takes to be focused and to get the words together, you know, increases the motion.

It's just something to get used to. The thing that's strange about it is when you're live with it every day, and then to have someone outside give you a review on it.

Stephanopoulos: Become an expert.

Fox: Like I said, you have-- You don't even get hurt. You're just kind of like, "Sorry? You got some notes for me?"


… on how is this supposed to work?"


Stephanopoulos: Rush apologized -- I guess he apologized for saying you were acting. He didn't call you, did he?

Fox: He would've had more qualifications at an AA meeting.


No, you know, that's beside the point. It really isn't germane to the issue.

It's funny because, what I'm talking about is about hope. It's about promise. It's about moving forward. It's a forward-looking attitude about what this country is capable of and what we can accomplish for our citizens.

And so if we get sidetracked into a dialogue about whether sick people have a right to display their symptoms in public, you know, that reaction. I think it was more disappointing, from the point of view of-- The campaigns, like the [Republican Senate candidate Michael] Steele campaign, their spokesman said, "It was in poor taste," which really-- I mean, I'm out here and I expect that. Being in the lead, I'll take some hits. And that's fine. I'm a big boy. Well, not height-wise.


I'm experienced enough and mature enough to take my licks.

But I know the community was really hurt by it. And it really brings up the specter of, "Go away. Shut the windows. Shut the doors. Close the curtains, and suffer, and don't let us know," because it's a fearful response.

And what the irony is, is that those people that are being pitied or being asked to suffer in silence don't want to suffer, don't see themselves as pitiable, don't see themselves as victims -- see themselves as citizens, participants in the process, and people with aspirations and hopes and dreams for the future. They are way more positive as a whole than what I've seen from the community that opposes them.

Stephanopoulos: You mentioned the Steele campaign. Both the Steele campaign and the Talent campaign have said you're not being fair to them, because they want to expand stem cell research, too, they say, but it's adult stem cell research.

Fox: Right, and I agree with them on adult stem cell research. I mean, let's talk about what we agree on. I agree that stem cell research is fantastic; we should pursue it. I agree that we should have no human cloning. We're against that. We're against egg farming, that notion. We agree on all of that.

The only thing is, we would like to include embryonic stem cell research, which our scientists say has the best hope for cures and breakthroughs.

See, we're in agreement. I think that when they say talk about not being fair, there has been, again, not as much focus on the content of the ad. It's really the appearance of the ad. But really, because all the statements are verifiable and to direct comparison, it is, in effect, an ad for their position. If you see the ad and you agree with their position, and there are people that do, then it should incentive you to vote for them.

Stephanopoulos: In the ad now running in Missouri, Jim Caviezel speaks in Aramaic. It means, "You betray me with a kiss." And his position, his point, is that actually even though down in Missouri they say the initiative is against cloning, it's actually going to allow human cloning.

Fox: Well, I don't think that's true. You know, I campaigned for Claire McCaskill. And so I have to qualify it by saying I'm not qualified to speak on the page-to-page content of the initiative. Although, I am quite sure that I'll agree with it in spirit, I don't know, I-- On full disclosure, I haven't read it, and that's why I didn't put myself up for it distinctly.

But I've made this point before, and I really am sincere in it, that anybody who's prayed on this, and thought about it, and really considered it and can't get their mind around or their heart around the idea of embryonic stem cell research, I'd go to war for your right to believe that. And you're right to feel that. I respect it. I truly do.

My point is, and our point as a community, is we have a very good and supportable conclusion that a vast majority of people in this country are in favor of science playing a leading role in making changes in the future and believe in embryonic stem cell research.

So we're just saying, know that we have prayed on it, too, and we have thought about it, and we are good people, and we are family people, and we are people that take this very seriously, and we're as concerned as you are.

And we've decided that we would like to take this step and to do it with caution and to do it with oversight and to do it with the strictest adherence to ethics and all of the principles this country stands for.

But, allow us to do that without infusing the conversation with inflammatory rhetoric and name-calling and fear-mongering. It doesn't help.

Stephanopoulos: Do you think there's any way to finally find common ground with people who do believe in the end that this is tampering with tiny lives?

Fox: Well, again, the point has been made that these lives are going to be thrown away, anyway. They are marked for destruction -- thousands of frozen embryos that are a byproduct of in vitro fertilization. We have routinely, before this conversation started on stem-cell research, we have for years thrown them away.

And that's the other thing, you know, this idea of snowflake babies: We're in favor of that. The truth of the matter is that it is only going to account for a tiny fraction--

Stephanopoulos: Those are the embryos that are adopted and then brought--

Fox: Absolutely. Who would have a problem with that? That's fantastic.

But it will, in the end, account for only a tiny fraction of those eggs. And so our point is that the pro-life position is to use that -- what up to this point is waste, of literal waste that is going to be thrown away -- use it to save lives and to ensure lives for the future. I mean, they talk about unborn. Unborn kids are going to be born with diabetes. People are going to be dealing with a genetic predisposition to Alzheimer's or to Parkinson's or kids that are going to be injured, have spinal cord injury.

That those kids may be born into a world that has the answers for that. That's our position.



Stephanopoulos: You were just saying you're about to hit a pocket.

Fox: Yeah, I just hit a nice pocket. I should be calm for a sec.

Stephanopoulos: Good.

Fox: It's kind of like surfing, you know. You wait for the wave. And I just hit a nice wave I think.

Stephanopoulos: Well, I don't want to rile you up, but I am going to bring up Rush Limbaugh one more time.


Fox: There it goes!

Stephanopoulos: One of the things he says is that when you're talking about all these cures, you're giving people false hope and that it's cruel.

Fox: It's so funny. What is crueler, to not have hope or to have hope? And it's not false hope. It's a very informed hope. I mean, it's hope that's informed by the opinion of our leading scientists, almost to the point of unanimity that embryonic stem cells, because they're pluripotent, because they have the capacity to be anything, and, are truly-- Will [it] be a straight path to victory? Probably not. Probably you'll have stutter steps along the way.

In fact, they just did some work where they found that it actually relieved the symptoms of Parkinson's in one test, but there some residue, some tissue residue that built up, which is not ideal. But two steps forward, one step forward, one step back, you know, it's a process, it's how this country was built. It's what we do, you know. It seems to me that in the last few years, eight, 10 years, we've just stopped, we've become incurious and un-ambitious. And hope, I mean, hope is-- I don't want to get too corny about it, but isn't that what the person in the harbor with the thing--? (Gestures)

It's about hope. And so to characterize hope as some sort of malady or some kind of flaw of character or national weakness is, to me, really counter to what this country is about.

Stephanopoulos: We first talked about this five years ago. And you did talk about the enormous promise.

Looking back five years later, some scientists do, it's been a disappointment.

Fox: Well, it's been a disappointment in that they haven't had a full deck to deal from.

I mean, we talked in 2001 and there, you know, there was talk of 60 lines. And even that really 60 lines out of potentially thousands of lines. We've been limited to 60.

I remember sharing with you with one point, whether on camera or not, that there would be less than that and it turned out to be less than that.

And then those lines turned out to be quite polluted in some cases with mouse cells.

And also now, now, it's like you're try to get a good picture out of a videotape that's been recorded on over the course of 10 years.

I mean, it's so, been through so many generations, it's just like using a first-issue Mac in today's computer world. You can't great results from that. We need to fully support these scientists and give them what they need.

And, again, set rigid ethical standards and have faith in them to follow the standards and to explore, with the best material they can have, answers that will take care of our citizenry.

We're talking about the greatest asset that we have, which is our people. And we're saying we're forsaking those people for the sake of these cells which are, as I said, going to be destroyed.

The moral high ground has been surrendered on that.

Stephanopoulos: Supporters of the President Bush say: Wait a second. He's the first president ever to have any funding.

Fox: He's the first one who had an opportunity to. I mean, this technology didn't-- He came in with it. It didn't precede him. No one had an opportunity before him.

Clinton didn't have an opportunity to vigorously pursue embryonic stem cell research because it wasn't there. It kind of co-arrived with the president. So he set the policy going forward with this new science.

And he immediately took the vision that he took, which was guarded support, if you could even characterize it as support, and so it's not surprising that we've had the progress that we've made, which has been limited.

Stephanopoulos: You clearly believe that President Bush has hindered the progress. Can you quantify it?

Fox: Well, I don't know. I wouldn't put it-- I don't know that he said, "Here's what I think about this; I don't like this; I'm going to hinder it."

I think that it was overly managed to the point of-- I mean, the outlook was immediately damage control and, you know, "Let's not have this be something that's going to make anybody upset," as opposed to embracing it as an opportunity.

So I don't want to characterize the president's motives or ambitions or thought process, but the outcome is obvious.

It hasn't been supported. It's been limited. I mean, the very fact that the stem cell line-- We started out with limitations -- not guidelines, limitations.

In fact, the guidelines, if I remember correctly, and I may be quoting a little out of school, but you'll might be able to look back and find it.

I think the scientific panels that were assembled at the time said that this isn't enough; this isn't aggressive enough. And then they were kind of shut down and that pattern has continued. You know, there hasn't been an embrace of science. Across the board, there hasn't been an embrace of science.

And again, I just go back to the fact that our scientists throughout the history of this country have made tremendous contributions and have proven themselves to be worthy of our support and respect.

Stephanopoulos: You're supporting it through your foundation. A lot of states are supporting it. What do you say to those who say, "You know, we don't need the federal government to get in the middle of this right now, and it's too divisive an issue?"

Fox: Well, the federal government has to be involved, because on one level, you talk about limitations; it's not just a matter of the stem cells being limited, but the restriction on federal funding. If you have an institution, a facility that can do this kind of work and it receives any federal funding at all, you lose that if you do, if you take a cell out of a Petri dish on government property. So you have to have duplication of facilities.

So now our resources are going into scientists having to duplicate federal facilities at enormous expense in order to do the most rudimentary work with stem cells, with embryonic stem cells. You have researchers that can't get funding. And so you have young researchers that are not going into the field. It's the iterations of limitation are endless.

So you say: Why can't the private sector get involved? Because they have to duplicate the entire resources of the federal government in order to do it. It's just not practical.

Stephanopoulos: What's the best evidence that you've seen recently of the promise of stem cell research?

Fox: Well, like I said, the fact that they can, that they can halt the symptoms of Parkinson's relative to us, again, with, you know, again, with, with flaws and with things that don't make it translatable at this point.

But, it's-- No. In answer to those that say it's false hope, you know, we're not fooling ourselves. This is a course that's going to take some time and have some setbacks. But it's a positive, forward-looking attitude and approach with, again, assurances that this is the most optimistic and positive and promising recourse we can take.

Stephanopoulos: And your goal now is to go out and elect candidates who will, I guess, help override the president's veto.

Fox: Of any stripe. You know, that's the other notion that was put out there, was that I somehow was recruited by the Democratic Party.

Stephanopoulos: Democratic shill, I think was the word.

Fox: Democratic shill, yes. I have to look up shill in the dictionary. I think it has something to do with supporting someone whose beliefs you don't believe in for ulterior reason or something.

But, yeah, no, I'm not a shill for the Democratic Party. I approached them. I sat down to find out what candidates are pro-stem cell in races where they're opposed by anti-stem cell candidates. And I had no predisposition toward Democrats or Republicans. It'd be fine with me either way.

In fact, a Republican candidate who's pro-stem cell would be someone I'd really like to talk to. And in fact in the past I've supported, I've done commercials for Arlen Specter, who is a very aggressive pro-stem cell champion. And I know that there are others, you know. There are people like Orrin Hatch and Danforth and others who've thought about it, weighed it really carefully and found that its pro-life possibilities aren't counter to their previous positions. This is a pro-life position, and this is the responsibility of our leadership to take it down this path. It will help Americans.

Stephanopoulos: You know, in your book, "Lucky Man," you really are unsparing in your description of the horrors of this disease. But you also make it seem almost like a gift. Do you still feel that way?

Fox: That's unique to me. I've been so incredibly blessed in my life. So lucky. So gifted with amazing things -- my family and my wife; my career; the things I've seen; the people that I've met.

And I found myself in this unique position of although I'm-- I'm-- I'm-- I'm facing this, and I'm dealing with it, and it's, and it's not what one would pick out of a catalogue. It-- It-- It does provide me an opportunity to make a difference and to do positive things. And for that I have to be grateful and humbled by that circumstance.

It's-- Again, there's so much to be grateful for. And there are so many others that are in this position that don't have what I have, that are saddled with the possibility of losing their insurance and not being able to get insurance, or trying to hide symptoms.

Talk about hiding -- the notion -- this is what struck a nerve. The notion of hiding symptoms is so key to what patients of all kinds of conditions, but particularly Parkinson's, it's the biggest thing we face -- it's hiding. We have to hide.

Don't let anybody see. Don't let them think you're drunk. Don't let them think you're incapable. Don't let them think you're unstable, you're unsteady, you're flawed, you're devalued.

Don't let them see that. Mask it. Hide it. Cover it up.

So that when-- The community, I know, reacted when I came out and said, "You know, I want to make myself comfortable with this the best I can do right now." And that's assailed. It strikes to the very core of who we are as people. And that's whether we have ALS or we have a parent who has Alzheimer's, and we face the prospect of having it ourselves. Or we have a spinal cord injury. Or whatever we have.

The fact that us representing ourselves as who we are, expressing ourselves as our bodies will allow us to, is not good enough. It's suspect. And it's something that doesn't, doesn't want to be faced by society.

And our political aspirations, our goals as participants in society, participants in government, it's somehow less valuable or seen as being flawed by a peculiar ulterior motive or selfishness that precludes us from taking other things into account.

We'd be better to take other things into account. We take our responsibility as citizens very seriously, and our sense of ethics and again, our spirituality and our participation in government, we take it very seriously. It's not-- It's not made sinister by the fact that we have an affliction that may drive us down a certain path of activism.

It's, it's-- You know, it's amazing to-- I can't stress enough. I don't want to react personally to these attacks. It's pointless. It's silly.

It's like getting in a fight with a bully. What's the point? You're not going to change his mind. You're just probably going to get a nose bleed.

So why bother?

But make no mistake, it hurts. And it hurt when-- It hurts to see the president use the one veto of his administration to strike down this legislation.

It passed through both the houses of the Congress. It had a lot of very-- People of very serious conscience thought about it and has in their duty of representatives voted for.

And to see the president: No.

Stephanopoulos: He's got a little over two more years. Do you think there's anything you can say or do?

Fox: We're doing it. This is what we're doing. To try and elect representatives of either stripe, or either party, who will go in there and get us a veto-proof margin.

Let's get on with this. It's what the people want. It's what the people deserve.

Stephanopoulos: And you're campaigning next week.

Fox: Yes, I'll be out there.

Stephanopoulos: Michael, thank you.

Fox: Thank you.