Why I Said No to the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: Embryonic Stem Cell Research Is Deadly
Those who have read me for years know of my consistent commitment to defending the Right to Life and the dignity of every human person. I have spent most of my life defending, leading or supporting philanthropic and charitable efforts which defend the dignity of every human life.
That is why I am troubled by the ice bucket challenge currently sweeping the nation.
At first glance, it seems so right. The parade of celebrities who have decided to be submerged in the ice in order to raise funds to help speed the cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), often referred to as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” is impressive. It has even included some well-intended leaders of the faith community, people whom I deeply admire.
The ice bucket challenge has raised over 60 million dollars since it was introduced publicly on July 29, 2014.
ALS is a neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord. Over the years I have had friends, parishioners or close associates who have suffered from this progressive disease. Finding a cure is a commendable and vital mission. Much of what is set forth on the ALS Association web site is well worth reading.
However, there is a serious moral problem. It must not be swept under the rug. The ALS Association uses some of the funds raised in its work to fund embryonic stem cell research. One simply cannot do evil to accomplish good. The moral error of consequentialism is one of the oldest of moral errors. It is running rampant these days, even within some Christian communities.
It was exposed by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans (Romans 3:7-8) and is the clear, unbroken tradition of the Christian Church. In its profound treatment of the Morality of Human Acts (Par. 1749-1761) the Catholic Catechism affirms the principle of morality that the end does not justify the means. “An evil action cannot be justified by reference to a good intention” (cf. St. Thomas Aquinas, Dec. praec. 6). The end does not justify the means.” (par. 1751)
I am an ordained member of the Catholic Clergy, a Deacon of the Diocese of Richmond, Virginia. I just received a mailing from our Bishop and the Vicar of Clergy which is set forth below in full below.
Diocese of Richmond Statement on Participation in ALS “Ice Bucket Challenge”
Over the last few weeks, in an attempt to raise awareness about the debilitating disease of ALS, people around our Diocese and throughout the country have participated in the “Ice Bucket Challenge.” This challenge invites people to make donations to a charity of their choice to support further research to treat and cure ALS. The ALS Association is the largest organization researching this disease.
Catholics may not be aware that the ALS Association uses embryonic stem cell research to research the cause, treatment and possible cure of the disease. Because it involves the destruction of human life, embryonic stem cell research is contrary to the moral teaching of the Catholic Church, which upholds the dignity of human life at every stage of development. Catholics and Catholic organizations cannot morally contribute to this kind of research.
However, the Diocese does support research to treat and find a cure for this debilitating disease. As Catholics we insist that this research must recognize the sanctity of all human life. We ask that Catholics participating in the “Ice Bucket Challenge” donate their financial contributions to pro-life research groups, such as the John Paul II Medical Research Institute in Iowa City, Iowa, which uses adult stem cell research. This method of research is morally acceptable, because it does not involve the destruction of human life.
The Diocese is correct in its decision and analysis. I am honored to be a member of the Clergy of Richmond. As the memo explains, many Catholics may not be aware of the issues raised.
In addition, many Christians of other communities, other people of faith and people of good will may not be aware of the immoral nature of embryonic stem cell research, as well as its failure to produce any real discernible progress.
That is why I have chosen not only to post the release from my Diocese but to address the broader moral issues raised for my readers. Though I will quote Catholic sources, I encourage my Christian friends from other communities to read the documents, even if you may have disagreements with my Church on some theological issues.
You will find that on the fundamental moral issues of this hour, the Catholic Church is a guardian of the truth and a great ally in our joint cause to defend the dignity of every human life.
Unfortunately, the catch all term “stem cell research” is now used without precision. There is a fundamental difference between embryonic stem cell research, which involves the extraction of stem cells and always results in the taking of embryonic human life, and adult stem cell research which never does.
The human embryo is a living member of the human species who, like every one of us, is always in development. Every human being possesses an equal moral dignity and has a fundamental Right to Life.
This is true no matter what age or stage of our development, degree of dependence upon others (we are all dependent upon others) or the opinion of others as to our “worth”. We are not products we are persons.
The Vatican expressed it this way in 2008, “the use of human embryos or fetuses as an object of experimentation constitutes a crime against their dignity as human beings who have a right to the same respect owed to a child once born, just as to every person.” (Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith, Instruction Dignitas Personae on Certain Bioethical Questions).
Among the worst examples of using language to deceive and hide the truth is the failure to differentiate between human embryonic stem cell research and adult stem cell research.
I often wonder whether the blurring of these two very different areas of biomedical research may be an intentional act on the part of some who seem hell bent on using human embryonic persons for experimentation.
Oh, I know, some people will gasp when they read such a strong statement. However, given the amazing breakthroughs occurring with adult stem cell research and the lack of coverage such advances are receiving, I am left with no alternative. Let’s consider just two examples from the past.
The Obama administration’s favoring of the always deadly use of embryonic stem cells – in spite of the medical science which shows that adult stem cells actually produce results and never kill – is morally repugnant.
On Monday, March 9, 2009, President Obama issued one of his many Executive Orders to accomplish his agenda – without any use of either a vote or advice and consent. That Order turned a whole class of human persons, embryonic human persons, into commodities to be used. The NIH Guidelines treat human embryos as spare parts.
Human embryonic stem cell research has had no discernible positive results. It is always deadly for the human embryonic person. To the contrary, adult stem cell research harms no-one and has borne great results.
The teaching of the Catholic Church on the immorality of using Human Embryonic Life for research is consistent, clear and unequivocal. In 1987 the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith of the Holy See issued an “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation“.
Among the many questions answered was this one: “What Respect is due to the human embryo, taking into account his nature and identity?” The answer is absolutely clear: “The human being must be respected – as a person – from the very first instant of his (her) existence.”
On September 8, 2008, the Feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Vatican Congregation responsible for the protection of Doctrine (The Congregation of the Doctrine of the Faith) released a passionate defense of the dignity of every single human life from the moment of conception until natural death.
It was entitled, in Latin, Dignitatis Personae: On Certain Bioethical Questions. As is the custom with magisterial documents, the title of this instruction was taken from the first line, “The dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death“.
The document continued, “This fundamental principle expresses a great “yes” to human life and must be at the center of ethical reflection on biomedical research, which has an ever greater importance in today’s world.”
At the release of the instruction the press was filled with reports. Some accurately described the content and properly affirmed its significance. Others were based on mistaken caricatures of the Catholic Church and not on the substance of what the teaching document actually presented.
Still others demonstrated that the writers did not read the document or, if they did, did not like what it had to say and actually chose to mislead the public. Finally, some were based on old tired assertions of the Catholic Church as being “out of touch” or “anti-technology” or “anti-sexuality” or any number of other absolutely untrue and groundless assertions.
The Instruction continued the consistent defense of the dignity of every human life, respect for the goods and ends of marriage and the insistence on having authentic moral criteria with which to evaluate alleged advances in medical science as presented by the Catholic Church through her teaching office.
The Catholic Church is not against advances in medical science. Rather, she simply insists that good science must always respect the first goods; life, marriage and the common good of our life together.
The truth is the Catholic Church not only supports adult stem cell research but funds it and is leading the way in this important work! I wrote about this in an article entitled The Catholic Church is Leading the Way on Ethical Stem Cell Research and Regenerative Medicine
The 2008 instruction did not discourage progress in bio-medicine. In fact it encouraged it within an authentically ethical framework, one which accepts that science must always be placed at the service of the human person, the family and the common good. Any use of the so called new technologies must also respect that the human body is never an “it” – but an “I” – some-one who must never be treated as an object:
“The body of a human being, from the very first stages of its existence, can never be reduced merely to a group of cells. The embryonic human body develops progressively according to a well-defined program with its proper finality, as is apparent in the birth of every baby.”
The insistence upon this framework for evaluating bio-medicine finds support in the history of other true advances in Medical Science. The ethical criterion is revealed in the Natural Law; the fundamental right to life and the dignity of human persons.
This right is knowable by and binding upon all men and women and is not simply a religious construct. In point of fact, footnote 7 within that document cited Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI’s presentation to the United Nations in April of 2008 which summarized this point well:
“Human rights, in particular the right to life of every human being, are based on the natural law inscribed on human hearts and present in different cultures and civilizations. Removing human rights from this context would mean restricting their range and yielding to a relativistic conception, according to which the meaning and interpretation of rights could vary and their universality would be denied in the name of different cultural, political, social and even religious outlooks. This great variety of viewpoints must not be allowed to obscure the fact that not only rights are universal, but so too is the human person, the subject of those rights.”
It is in light of this fundamental moral criterion that the instruction discusses human sexuality and marital love, procreation and infertility treatments and the “manipulation of the embryo or the human Genetic Patrimony.”
The section concerning gene therapy and the therapeutic use of stem cells, distinguishing both the types of cells and the techniques used to obtain them, is one of the best explanations of the complex technologies which I have read.
The Catholic Church encourages the use of adult stem cells and stem cells which can be derived from non-lethal uses such as fetal cord blood. These technologies do not take human embryonic lives and have also been the subject of amazing scientific progress.
No matter how many efforts there are to dismiss Catholic teaching in this fundamental area of ethics, the opponents of the truth which she defends will not prevail because her teaching is true, it is never right to take innocent human life. One cannot do evil to accomplish a perceived good end.
The instruction made a vital historical point, “Just as a century ago it was the working classes which were oppressed in their fundamental rights, and the Church courageously came to their defense by proclaiming the sacrosanct rights of the worker as person, so now, when another category of persons is being oppressed in the fundamental right to life, the Church feels in duty bound to speak out with the same courage on behalf of those who have no voice. Hers is always the evangelical cry in defense of the world’s poor, those who are threatened and despised and whose human rights are violated.”
“In virtue of the Church’s doctrinal and pastoral mission, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith has felt obliged to reiterate both the dignity and the fundamental and inalienable rights of every human being, including those in the initial stages of their existence, and to state explicitly the need for protection and respect which this dignity requires of everyone.
“The fulfillment of this duty implies courageous opposition to all those practices which result in grave and unjust discrimination against unborn human beings, who have the dignity of a person, created like others in the image of God. Behind every “no” in the difficult task of discerning between good and evil, there shines a great “yes” to the recognition of the dignity and inalienable value of every single and unique human being called into existence.”
Sadly, the view of human rights in recent American judicial precedent and legislation denies the equal protection of the law to the human embryonic person. American law refuses to recognize that human embryos have a right to life and a right to a future.
This approach to human embryonic persons is carried through in the treatment of the child in the womb. Until that child is born, he or she is treated as property to be used or disposed of if not wanted. The current positive law of the United States denies the Natural Law Right to Life. It has substituted a profane counterfeit in its place, a “Right” to abort the child.
There are a number of arguments used to try to defend the lie that fundamental rights are conferred by positive civil law rather than by the Natural Law. This is done to deprive entire groups of human persons from their protection. Most reserve the use of the concept of “person” to only those humans who are deemed to somehow be “independent” and/or “autonomous”.
They are being promoted by people who call actually themselves “medical ethicists”. They hold academic degrees and professional pedigree and sit on Advisory Councils. Some of these so called “ethicists” make a distinction between “potential” and “actual” human persons and relegate the child in the womb to the category of being only a “potential” human person.
Others view interdependency as a negative and insist on independence and “autonomy” as a criterion for any human rights to attach. Some equate the human embryos dependency on the mother as a form of “non-personhood”. Still others propose a progressive notion of consciousness as indicative of a growing presence of “personhood”.
A few concede that human embryos are human beings but deny they are persons. We find all of these ideas in the field sadly referred to these days as “Bio-Ethics” – even though such positions are anything but ethical. We find them in textbooks being used to teach the subject to future medical practitioners. (See, e.g., Singer and Kuhse, “Bioethics“)
One of these alleged “ethicists”, Michael Tooley denies the child in the womb should have any rights at all. His rationale evolved over time. In each version, as scientific research cast serious doubt on his claims, he conveniently shifted his ground to reach the same conclusion.
Yet, human embryology and developmental biology affirm that a human embryo is not distinct in kind from a human being, but a human being at an early stage of development. Even prior to implantation, a human embryo is a unique living human being with the genetic constitution and epigenetic primordial that continues to develop throughout his or her life.
However, the right not to be killed in the womb, the right to be born and the right to participate in human relationships are rejected for these little persons. Human embryonic lives are reduced to what one astute Catholic philosopher and lawyer, Robert George, called a “pre-personal way of being human“.
The idea that human beings can be less than persons is increasingly applied to other stages of human development outside of the womb. The disabled (physically and mentally), the aged and the infirm are increasingly denied the equal protection of the law. There is an emphasis on individual rights over relation and on autonomy over solidarity.
Saint John Paul II wrote in “The Gospel of Life” of this “remarkable contradiction”. He explained “the roots of the contradiction between the solemn affirmation of human rights and their tragic denial in practice lies in a notion of freedom which exalts the isolated individual in an absolute way, and gives no place to solidarity, to openness to others and service of them.”(Par. 19)
This counterfeit idea of freedom also views comatose human beings as no longer worthy of being called “persons”. Their caregivers are encouraged to stop giving them food and water. Seriously ill children are viewed as interlopers who should not continue to use medical and social resources.
Whether the criteria for being recognized as a human person is a satisfactory level of brain function, an agreed upon notion of self-awareness, non-dependency, individual autonomy, or some similar “acceptable” level of physical or mental capacity, this reduces the human being to a human doing, valuable not simply because they are members of our human family and gifts to be received but valued based upon their functionality.
There can be NO debate about this fact; we were all once human embryos. We all lived in the first home of the whole human race, our mother’s womb. For the Christian, we profess that the Son of God, the Incarnate Word, the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity, was a human being, who, in the embryonic stage, lived in his mother’s womb.
At every age and stage of our “human-being-ness“, be it as an embryonic person, in the womb, as an infant, as a child, an adolescent, an adult, in our times of illness, in our old age, we have always been dependent on others and vulnerable. This is what it means to be a human being. The emphasis of the proponents of the culture of death on independence and autonomy informs a worldview that Saint John Paul II taught threatens the “entire structure of human rights.” (Gospel of Life, Par. 19)
I was approached to take the Ice Bucket Challenge to help bring an end to ALS. I said no. I have tried to explain why I said no in this article. I hope it is a helpful contribution in our public discussion. As a Christian, it is never easy to be seen as seemingly unwilling to support a noble cause such as the eradication of a debilitating disease.
However, it is vital that we stand for for the fundamental and foundational moral truth which underlies every effort to end disease, the dignity of every human person, including embryonic human persons. Embryonic stem cell research always takes the life of an embryonic person by extracting the stem cells. One cannot do evil to accomplish good.
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