Supporting Secular Charities and the Fruit of the Poisonous Tree

Right now, the Internet is atwitter over the “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge”. I’ve enjoyed the video clips posted by a few friends in which they “take the challenge” (get a bucket of ice water over the head) and then call out three other friends to follow suit.

Source: Wikimedia Commons; Author: slgckgc

Source: Wikimedia Commons; Author: slgckgc

It’s a digital-viral-multi-level-pyramid-charity-marketing-scheme, and in a way, it’s brilliant. A bucket of ice water is cheap and (apart from here in California) plentiful, it can’t harm anyone, but it’s still fun to watch people get soaked. It’s a virtual “dunking booth” experience that everyone can “feel good about” because it’s harmless, and “for a good cause”. 

And, all of this is true, except that while we are “raising awareness” for a particular concern that needs more medical funding, we are also turning a blind eye to the problems with many of our secular charitable organizations. Despite our good intentions, and no matter how laudable the cause is, we cannot fall into consequentialism by supporting organizations that ultimately fail to respect the dignity of all human life. 

The moral dilemma is that many of these organizations support research involving embryonic stem cells. This is bad because (a) embryonic stem cells come from embryosi.e., individual members of the human race whose lives are extinguished in the name of (or secondary to) scientific research, (b) embryonic stem cells have yet to deliver on any promise (that a treatment or cure will come about from them) and (c) even if (when) such a treatment or cure is discovered from research on human embryos, it would not be licit to benefit from such treatment or cure.

Strychnos nuxvomica, a poisonous tree. Source: Wikimedia Commons; Author: Lalithamba

Strychnos nuxvomica, a poisonous tree. Source: Wikimedia Commons; Author: Lalithamba

This is not mere “remote possibility”, but rather through our funding and support, the research that results (to use a legal term) is the “fruit of the poisonous tree”: something that would not exist but for the illicit means that brought it about. 

In the Instruction Dignitas Personaethe CDF introduces the concept: “The dignity of a person must be recognized in every human being from conception to natural death. 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.” Regarding the use of embryos for creation of cell lines, the Church states:

The obtaining of stem cells from a living human embryo… invariably causes the death of the embryo and is consequently gravely illicit: “research, in such cases, irrespective of efficacious therapeutic results, is not truly at the service of humanity. In fact, this research advances through the suppression of human lives that are equal in dignity to the lives of other human individuals and to the lives of the researchers themselves. History itself has condemned such a science in the past and will condemn it in the future, not only because it lacks the light of God but also because it lacks humanity”.

The use of embryonic stem cells or differentiated cells derived from them – even when these are provided by other researchers through the destruction of embryos or when such cells are commercially available – presents serious problems from the standpoint of cooperation in evil and scandal.

It isn’t easy being the one who “breaks the chain” and declines to take part in something that, by initial appearances, seems a worthy cause. But as Catholics, we should be aware of many of the pitfalls of the secular world, including climbing on the bandwagon no matter how good the music. In the case of the ALS Association, participation (not the ice bucket part, but the donation to ALS Association) conflicts with Catholic teaching: not only does the ALS fund research on embryonic stem cells, but it also advocates for such funding and research. 

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati has offered an alternate approach: participate in the ice bucket challenge, but make the monetary donation to a group other than (in this case) the ALS Association: the Archdiocese suggests donating to the John Paul II Medical Research Institute. I’m all for this, and should I be “challenged”, my video will carry the message that the JPII Institute will receive my donation, and in “challenging” three more friends, I’m asking them to do the same. 

Ignorance (the saying goes) is bliss. However, making a monetary contribution is, in a way, something akin to voting: we empower organizations and individuals that we support financially, and we ratify their messages and goals. If you are the type of voter who doesn’t choose candidates and initiatives based upon soundbites and banners, then you shouldn’t be that type of giver either. The American Life League provides a handy reference to help you navigate the waters, whether warm or iced and in a bucket. And, just to give you an idea of how serious this is, here’s just a sample of the organizations (widely viewed as worthy causes) that carry warnings:

ALS Association
Alzheimer’s Association
American Cancer Society
American Diabetes Association
American Heart Association
American Lung Association
American Red Cross
Live Strong
March of Dimes
National Multiple Sclerosis Society
Susan G. Komen for the Cure

While the aims (curing disease, ending suffering) of these organizations are laudable, the means by which they would achieve their aims are not. Caution: tread lightly, and avoid hopping on the bandwagon until you know where your money (and time) is going. 

Because eating poisonous fruit has consequences, for body and soul. 


8 thoughts on “Supporting Secular Charities and the Fruit of the Poisonous Tree

  1. Pingback: Pope Francis Speaks w/Family of Jim Foley -

  2. People aren’t aware regarding embryonic stem cell and adult stem cell research but I think they care if it’s made clear- thanks for informing us. I will pass it on!

  3. Thank you for explaining in such an easily understandable – and communicable – way. And thank you for the link to the American Life League’s listing.

  4. Very short sighted and narrow minded not to mention mean spirited. But, then again, this is what I expect from a Rules & Regulations Catholic as opposed to a Catholic who lives in the real world. Sorta like Mother Teresa who never gave her hospice patients any analgesics because she thought suffering was good for them. That kind of compassion I can do without. As a person with a neuromuscular condition, I welcome any and all stem cell research (embryo and adult) that might effect a treatment for my condition. Same goes for people with spinal cord injuries, if stem cell research can help regrow nerve endings and restore mobility it would be a blessing. We have these frozen embryos because infertile married couples wanted children and we plunged ahead with assisted reproductive technology and created this problem. We should have stepped up and warned about IVF and surrogacy before it galloped from the barn.

    • So Mike D, would you be willing to allow us to harvest your cells (effectively killing you) so that someone MIGHT find a TREATMENT for someone else. This is not about rules and regulations. It is about not cannibalizing the weak. Period.

      • Comparing an adult to an embryo is specious. There are thousand, hundreds of thousands, frozen embryos that were collected to be used in IVF; however, more were collected than needed as a fall back if others failed to continue development. Those not used can be kept vital for unlimited time, at a cost to the couples that didn’t need them. If the bill isn’t paid and the embryos get tossed, is that murder? If embryos die while frozen, is an autopsy required to certify cause of death? Would someone be looking at being accused of negligence or manslaughter? The questions and choices are never ending. Morality and law for an adult do not apply to embryos.

  5. It never ceases to amaze me how the Church can demonize good organizations simply because a small part of their activities do not meet Church doctrine, yet the same people are willing to minimize terrible acts committed by priests and bishops. If you are willing to walk away from the ALS Association, you must be willing to walk away from the Church too. When you take an all or nothing approach in this world, you just end up alone.

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