The Internet has been awash, if you will forgive the pun, with videos of people the world over tipping a bucket containing ice cold water over their heads in the name of charity. The idea is that each person also donates money to the Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis Association. ALS, which is known as Lou Gehrig’s disease in the United States and motor neurone disease in the United Kingdom, is a debilitating condition which results in muscle spasticity, rapidly progressive weakness, and difficulty speaking and breathing. There is no doubt that we should be doing all we can to find a cure for this disease.
But the end should never justify the means.
One type of research which ALSA is funding involves human embryonic stem cells. Embryonic stem cells are developed from a female egg after it has been fertilized by sperm to make an embryo. The process generally begins with in-vitro fertilization. In IVF, an egg is removed from a woman and fertilized in the lab through the injection of a sperm. The cells begin to divide and after a few days, the embryo, known as a blastocyst, would normally be inserted into a uterus. However, in embryonic stem cell research, instead of doing this, when the embryo is three to four days old, scientists remove individual stem cells and the embryo is sacrificed in the process.
The initial attraction of embryonic stem cells is that they are “pluripotent.” This means that they are able to differentiate into 300 or so different types of human cells. Scientists, therefore, see the potential for these new cells to replace damaged tissue.
Embryonic stem cells are different than adult stem cells, which can be taken from living humans without harming them. The difficulty with adult stem cells is that they are ‘only’ multipotent. This means that, rather than being able to differentiate into any type of cell, they can only usually differentiate into a smaller number of cell types, normally those found in the organ from which they were taken.
However, in recent years, researchers have discovered inducted pluripotent stem cells (iPS). As the name would suggest, these are stem cells which, like embryonic stem cells, have the ability to differentiate into any cell type. However, unlike embryonic stem cells, they do not presuppose the destruction of life. Instead, they are created by essentially reverse engineering a specialized cell so that it reverts back to a stem cell. This process, discovered in 2006 by scientists in Japan, allows researchers to explore the potential benefits of stem cell therapies without the unacceptable cost of human life.
The availability of such alternatives, along with the inherent dignity of life are at the heart of testimony Alliance Defending Freedom presented to the European Parliament during consideration of its recently debated research budget, known as “Horizon 2020.”
ALSA and stem cells
Both ALSA and, in the United Kingdom, the sister organization the Motor Neurone Disease Association are aiming to raise awareness of the disease through the ‘ice bucket challenge.’ The money they raise goes towards their research efforts to cure the disease. However, both organizations support research that uses embryonic stem cells, even recognizing on their website the “significant moral, ethical and religious” concerns raised by this.
The ALSA says: “Adult stem cell research is important and should be done alongside embryonic stem cell research as both will provide valuable insights. Only through exploration of all types of stem cell research will scientists find the most efficient and effective ways to treat diseases.”
On being pressed on their continuing embryonic stem cell research, the ALSA has responded that this only relates to one study and that study involves an embryo which was sacrificed “many years ago.”
However, if this is a matter of principle, that is beyond the point. Moreover, the ALSA has not committed to prohibiting embryonic stem cell research in the future.
There is nothing problematic about raising awareness that is a feature of this campaign. And there is nothing wrong with people tipping buckets of cold water over their heads. To be clear, there are two things I don’t want to get in the way of: giving to charity in general, and giving to ethical research to ALS. Rather, those nominated may wish to consider how they want to direct their donation. Giving to an organization like John Paul II Medical Research Institute or donating to ALSA on the condition that the money is not used for any current or future embryonic stem cell research may apply the pressure needed for them to cease this dark practice.
In a world in which giving has not yet returned to pre-recession levels, something which gets the likes of David Beckham, Mark Zuckerberg, and Oprah Winfrey flexing their charitable muscles along with thousands of others is not a bad thing. But the ice bucket challenge presents us with the opportunity of becoming discerning, informed benefactors.
-Robert Clarke is litigation staff counsel with Alliance Defending Freedom in Vienna, Austria.
Alliance Defending Freedom is an international, alliance-building legal organization that advocates for religious freedom, the sanctity of life, and marriage and the family in numerous courts and consultative bodies worldwide.
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