Tuesday, July 18, 2006

Kerry Intern's Presence Puts a Face in the Stem Cell Debate

The Senate is in the midst of a deep debate on stem cell research, and although it appears that the Senate bill could pass, Bush has vowed to do something he has never done in "six years: veto a bill." Bush remains unwilling to deviate from his policy set in August 2001, "restricting federal funding for stem cell research."

This morning as John Kerry took the Senate floor to speak on his support for stem cell research, he was joined by an intern from his D.C. office, Beth Kolbe. Beth is a "Paralympic athlete who was paralyzed in a car accident at age 14." The Boston Globe reported today on Beth's opportunity as a Senate intern to have an "impact on public policy."

Interns on Capitol Hill rarely get a chance to participate in Senate debates, much less have an impact on public policy. But when Beth Kolbe heard that the Senate would be debating stem cell research this week, the 20-year-old quadriplegic Harvard student knew she had to be there.

So she approached her boss -- Senator John F. Kerry -- at his intern lunch on Wednesday.

"I asked him if I could be on the floor with him," Kolbe said. "I hope that as the senators are voting they can see a face that reminds them of what they're actually voting for."

A Paralympic athlete who was paralyzed in a car accident at age 14, Kolbe will join Kerry today as he speaks in support of a bill that would allow federal funding for new lines of stem cells made from discarded embryos from fertility clinics. Kolbe says such research may eventually help heal the injury to her spinal cord.

"Theoretically, I'd be able to walk again," she said in an interview.

An Ohio native, Kolbe scored a paid internship at Kerry's Washington office for the summer, where she helps research health issues.

She saw an opening to discuss stem cell policy at the intern lunch.

"I didn't know if he would be speaking at that point, but I knew the bills were coming up and I was wondering if I would be able to be on the floor," Kolbe recalled. She popped the question to the senator, who was "more than happy" to have her.

"If you ever need to be reminded of why it's morally right to lift the ban on stem cell research, just listen to Beth," Kerry said in a statement. "She's more eloquent on this subject than any lobbyist or member of Congress."

At Harvard, Kolbe studies biology and public health, but she splits her time between the lecture hall and the swimming pool, where she practices her skills as one of the world's top disabled aquatic athletes.

She started swimming during physical therapy sessions after her car accident and soon began competing in state and national tournaments. Last year, she picked up a bronze medal at the Paralympic World Cup. Today, she is ranked fourth in the world in the 200 meter freestyle by the International Paralympics Committee, and she hopes to qualify for the 2008 Paralympics in Beijing.

"She's not someone who is only focused on the cure -- she's very much living her life today," said her mother, Cindy Kolbe, from the family's home in Tiffin, Ohio. "I think we're all hoping that stem cell research will offer her more options in the future, but in the meantime, she's making the most of everything she's had."

Beth Kolbe says she hopes to attend law school and work as an advocate for people with disabilities. Her mother, for "She's someone who will get noticed, not because of her disability," Cindy Kolbe said.

Representative James R. Langevin, a Rhode Island Democrat also interviewed for the Boston Globe story, "is the only quadriplegic member of Congress." He said stem cell research "is really all about people. Putting a human face on this research is vitally important."


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