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Some thoughts on ALS and the Ice Bucket Challenge

ice bucketDuring the month of August 2014, a competition known as the Ice Bucket Challenge went viral.  I had heard about this challenge but didn’t begin thinking seriously about it until my four-year-old-niece issued a challenge for me to pour ice-cold water over my head.

A few hours after the challenge had been issued, I came across an online post entitled Catholics and the Ice Bucket Challenge which points out that there may be some moral questions about how funds donated to the ALS Association are allocated.  Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), otherwise known as Lou Gehrig’s disease is a neurodegenerative disorder which is characterized by muscle spasticity, and rapidly progressive weakness due to muscle wasting which ultimately results in loss of speech, ability to swallow and to breathe.

The research into possible causes of this disease focuses on genetics and recent scientific discoveries have made it possible to consider stem cells as a possible source for the eventual cure of this disease. Stem cells are the precursors of all cells in the human body, possessing the ability to replicate themselves and to repair and replace other tissues.  Since stem cells are undifferentiated, they can be manipulated in a laboratory to turn them into a number of different types of cells or tissues.  Stem cells can be found in adults, in fetuses and in blastocysts – the precursors to embryos.

The Catechism of the Catholic Church lauds the value of such research:  One must hold as licit, procedures carried out on the human embryo which respect the life and integrity of the embryo and do not involve disproportionate risks for it, but are directed toward its healing, the improvement of the condition of health or its individual survival (CCC, 2275) but the Catechism also goes on to say: It is immoral to produce human embryos intended for exploitation as disposable biological material.

The origins of pouring cold water onto someone’s head as a fundraiser for charity are unknown and have been attributed to various sources.  In mid-2013, there is evidence of a Cold Water challenge but it wasn’t until mid-May 2014 that the idea of soaking participants with cold water and donating to charity were associated, but in its earliest evolution, there were many different charities involved.  Some Catholics who have chosen to participate in the Ice Bucket Challenge choose to make donations to charities other than ALS, out of a concern that their donations might be used for research which involves practices judged to be immoral by the Church’s teaching authority.

Aware of this objection, the ALS Association offers various options for donations, thereby allowing the donors to determine how their gifts should be used, including the funding of ALS research or to assist ALS patients and their families who face the challenges of living with the disease.

By: Father Tony