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Stem cells: hope and fear | Raymond L. Flynn

A true story about a little boy

By Raymond L. Flynn
November 14, 2010

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MY 4-YEAR-OLD grandson, Braeden, has a rare physical condition. He was born with a small cerebellum (a part of the brain involved in balance and coordination); he is unable to talk and falls down whenever he tries to walk. He wears special leg braces, a weighted body suit, special shoes, and a helmet. Not much is known about his condition. Braeden has been seeing various doctors at Children’s Hospital for a couple of years, but hasn’t had much progress. He attends special-needs public school, but nothing seems to be helping this beautiful little boy.

As mayor, I saw many families come to Boston from all over the world for compassionate care and treatment, and a hope for a cure. I received letters from parents who were grateful that our hospitals saved their children, who went on to lead happy lives. My daughter and her husband have that same hope for Braeden.

And so do I. I’d give my own legs to see him walk without falling down, hurting himself and crying in pain. I’d give him my voice to hear him say, “Hi Mommy.’’ I’d donate my brain today for medical research if I thought it would help him.

As US ambassador to the Vatican, I often watched parents with ill children pray for help. I arranged for sick children to be blessed by Pope John Paul II or attend a private Mass, and I prayed with them. The joy of seeing a smile on those parents was greater than any election I won, game I played in, or award I was given.

Recently I was sitting in the lobby of Children’s Hospital, a simple citizen searching for answers. I was filled with both the despair of not being able to really help this beautiful kid and the hope that there must be, in this age of scientific sophistication, something that can be done for Braeden. I thought, could stem cells be the answer? Could stem cells or some other medical technology help Braeden grow the parts of his brain that for some unexplained reasons had not grown normally at the time of birth?

Obviously, I was aware of the debate and the controversies surrounding stem cell research. Of course, the promise of stem cell research seems unavoidably tied to the destruction of human embryos in order to collect the prized embryonic stem cells, which is at the core of the controversy.

As a Catholic, the question is clear and simple; destroying one human life in order to assist another one clearly violates the most basic Christian values. But I wanted to know more. Under the surface of this whole debate, something else seemed to be transpiring. Why so few answers to so many medical problems?

I slowly discovered that there was a real disconnect between this quandary generally presented to us in the media and the actual science of stem cells. The dilemma surrounding the use of embryonic stem cells is just one part of a much bigger story that has received little media attention. Stem cells are not all the same. There is a way of tapping into the promise of stem cells without ever getting close to any ethical concern as a Christian and Catholic; we can use adult stem cells, the stem cells present in our own bone marrow, in our own bodies. Many scientists believe that these adult cells carry enormous potential. They have nothing do to with any embryo or the destruction of any form of life. Before even contemplating the use of embryonic stem cells, we must make the most of the potential of adult stem cells, and scientists are nowhere near that point.

Even remaining nothing more than carefully optimistic, I am filled with a sense of hope. We must never give up trying to find new medical cures to old painful problems.

Among many people of faith, the profound moral dilemma of embryonic stem cells has created suspicion about the entire field of stem cell research. So here I am, not as an expert, but as a citizen and a Catholic who is now comfortable with this whole concept of reaching out for new cures. I feel almost filled with a new sense of mission to educate other Catholics and Christians about the reality and ethics of stem cell research — the right kind of stem cell research based on adult stem cells — which will hopefully one day transform the course of medicine to help other children as well as Braeden.

Raymond L. Flynn is the former mayor of Boston and a former US ambassador to the Vatican. This column is adapted from a speech he recently delivered at Harvard University.