Ice bucket challenge raises bioethics concern

By Maureen Smith
Schools, coaches, sports teams, pastors, it seems like almost everyone is taking part in the ‘ice bucket challenge this summer including Madison St. Joseph School principal Keith Barnes, Father Scott Thomas, pastor of Clarksdale St. Elizabeth and Immaculate Conception parishes, the campus ministry teams at both The University of Mississippi and Mississippi State University, but they all did it with an eye on Catholic moral teaching. Catholic leaders are asking the faithful to think carefully before they join in the now ubiquitous campaign.
As of Aug. 26, the ALS Association (ALSA) had received $88.5 million in donations from July 29-Aug. 26. The challenge itself, choosing between being doused with ice water and donating to research for a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), is not a problem. Selecting the organization receiving the donation may pose an issue.
According to the National Catholic Bioethics Center, some organizations, including the ALSA, support embryonic stem cell research. The center sent out a statement supporting the idea of raising awareness, but also urging Catholics to direct their donations to organizations that use adult stem cells or simply serve those suffering from ALS, also known as Lou Gherig’s disease.
The Catholic Church opposes any research involving the destruction of human embryos to create stem cells. Adult stem cells, so called because they are derived from living human beings, also have promising scientific value but do not require destruction of an embryo. The reprogrammed stem cells can sometimes be used to replace damaged cells.
Carrie Munk, a spokeswoman for the ALS Association, told Catholic News Service that the organization primarily funds adult stem cell research and is at the end of funding one single embryonic study, which is funded by one specific donor.
She said that if someone “is uncomfortable with any type of research we do, they can restrict their gift” stipulating that it not be used in the embryonic stem study or any stem cell research.
Father Thomas posted an article about stem cell research and a list of acceptable donation sites on Facebook along with the video of his challenge. St. Dominic Hospital sent a message out to its staff educating them about the issue and instructing them not to promote organizations using embryonic stem cell research.
The issue has caused concern in Catholic communities across the nation. Some dioceses have issued statements urging schools that participate to send donations to other research organizations, such as the John Paul II Medical Research Institute in Iowa City, Iowa, which does not use embryonic stem cells in its research. That’s where the group in Starkville directed its donation.
An Aug. 20 statement from the Archdiocese of St. Louis points out: “There is nothing immoral about raising awareness for diseases and ethical research towards curing diseases; there is no reason Catholics can’t participate in the ice bucket challenge. The key, however, is to ensure that donations from participation are being utilized to support morally licit research.”
Similarly, New Orleans Archbishop Gregory M. Aymond told archdiocesan priests and employees in an Aug. 13 email that it’s “possible to participate in the ice bucket challenge and to do so in a way that is morally acceptable.”
“We have received questions on this project. Many people do not realize that some of the research is done with embryonic stem cells, which is against our pro-life stance,” he wrote.
He noted that many people in the New Orleans archdiocese suffer from ALS, including Jesuit Father Ray Fitzgerald, former principal of Jesuit High School New Orleans, who announced he was stepping down last year because he had been diagnosed with ALS; and Steve Gleason, a former football player with the New Orleans Saints, who was diagnosed with ALS and is an active advocate for ALS patients.
Some alternative organizations to consider:
The Cell Therapy Foundation, which specifically promotes adult stem cell research. On their website, it is possible to donate in a directed way to specific research, including ALS:
Compassionate Care ALS, which offers much-needed care and treatment for people living with ALS (instead of focusing on scientific research and the development of therapies):
The John Paul II Medical Research Institute, a secular medical research facility committed to maintaining and promoting pro-life practices: