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.
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 embryos, i.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.
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 Personae, the 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:
American Cancer Society
American Diabetes Association
American Heart Association
American Lung Association
American Red Cross
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.