MIDDLEBURY, Vt. (AP) – Speaking at the Middlebury College graduation Sunday, actor Christopher Reeve told a class of 625 seniors that paralysis is a choice.

“We can rationalize inaction by deciding that one voice or one vote doesn’t matter, or we can make the choice that inaction is unacceptable,” said Reeve, who was left paralyzed from the shoulders down after a 1995 fall from a horse. Since his injury, Reeve has made that message his life’s work.

As an advocate for paralysis research, Reeve spends much time lobbying politicians and the scientific community, calling on both groups to work hard so that he and others like him can walk again.

What some scientists say is the most promising key to Reeve’s recovery – research on stem cells harvested from human embryos – is opposed by various religious and anti-abortion groups, and President Bush has limited federal funding for the work.

In an interview with The Associated Press after his speech Reeve said he was encouraged those things would change.

“I see a grassroots movement” toward more stem cell research, Reeve said, mentioning private research centers at Harvard University and in Cleveland.

“Those private entities have gone forth very courageously,” he said.

Religion is an obstacle to broader acceptance of stem cell research in the United States, Reeve said. The countries that have made the greatest advances in the field are ones that have separated religious doctrine from secular law, he said.

“We’re having trouble doing that in this country,” Reeve said.

Reeve said Bush has a “moral obligation” to hear the evidence supporting embryonic stem cell research.

“I would say to the president that he has a moral obligation to listen to the experts, Nobel Prize laureates, scientists working in the trenches, and to support their desire to conduct ethical research,” he said. “As president he has a responsibility to do the greatest good for the greatest number of people.”

Reeve has surprised many in the scientific community with the speed and extent of his recovery. In 2000, Reeve was able to move his index finger, and a specialized workout regimen of stationary biking and pool exercises has made his legs and arms stronger. He has also regained sensation in other parts of his body.

His progress, and the emotional drive behind it, make the former “Superman” actor an impressive figure. The crowd at the graduation ceremony grew noticeably hushed when Reeve, who sits in a motorized wheelchair, was pushed by an assistant to center stage.

“Whether or not you realize it right now, the education you have received here has prepared you to pursue your own ambitions without losing sight of the invaluable difference you can make in this world,” Reeve told the graduates.

Though not a stranger to commencement addresses, Reeve has a particular connection to Middlebury College: his wife, Dana, graduated in 1984, and his brother Jeffrey is also an alumnus.

Dana Reeve spoke before her husband, encouraging the graduates to brace for the unpredictable in life.

“Be grateful for the many unexpected lessons you will learn,” she said.

College officials had to put up with at least one unexpected thing on Sunday – the weather. Heavy rain the night before gave way to a light sprinkling in the morning, adding damp to an already raw day.

The ceremony, held on a quadrangle at the center of campus, was also the last for outgoing President John McCardell, who is stepping down in June after 13 years of running the college.

McCardell, who joined Middlebury as a history professor, will return to teach in 2005.

“This is your day,” McCardell told the audience. “We hope you enjoy it to the fullest.”

AP-ES-05-23-04 1727EDT

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