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The Ice Bucket Challenge’s Ethical Surprise

by Archbishop Samuel J. Aquila, D.D.

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  • Description:
    Archbishop Aquila weighs in on the ice bucket challenge that is currently sweeping the United States to raise money for and awareness of Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement also known as Lou Gehrig's disease.
  • Larger Work:
    Denver Catholic Register
  • Publisher & Date:
    Archdiocese of Denver, August 26, 2014

From Conan O’Brien to little kids inspired to help those in need, people across the country have taken up the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in the past few weeks. The campaign has achieved astronomical success, raising $53.3 million for efforts to find a cure to Lou Gehrig’s disease. In the Archdiocese of Denver, the superintendent of Catholic schools has taken the challenge and nominated several principals for it, but with one crucial difference.

Instead of directing donors to the ALS Association, the archdiocese is asking people to give to the John Paul II Medical Research Institute, or the Stem for Life Foundation. This is because the ALS Association funds an embryonic stem cell research project.

Funding embryonic stem cell research cannot be glossed over because it involves serious moral issues. The Catechism of the Catholic Church explains in paragraph 1753 that a “good intention … does not make behavior that is intrinsically disordered … good or just. The end does not justify the means.”

The catechism then adds a line that applies even more clearly to embryonic stem cell research. “Thus,” it says, “the condemnation of an innocent person cannot be justified as a legitimate means of saving the nation.”

This means that regardless of how terrible or debilitating a disease is, it is never right or ethical to take the life of another person to find a cure.

The Archdiocese of Cincinnati was recently in the news for asking its students and principals not to take the ice bucket challenge, or if they did, to only donate to groups that use ethical research. The headlines were predictable: “Cincinnati Archdiocese throws cold water on ice bucket challenge;” “Archdiocese of Cincinnati douses enthusiasm for ice-bucket challenge in Catholic schools;” and “Archdiocese looks to freeze ice bucket challenge.”

But the media missed the point of the Cincinnati archdiocese’s objection. The idea was not to spoil students’ fun but to underscore that the lives of embryonic children matter immensely and are just as valuable as those of us who have been blessed to be nurtured and brought into this world. Innocent life before birth and after birth has value and God given meaning for every Catholic and may not be terminated, whether by abortion or by research.

Tens of thousands of people suffer from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), Parkinson’s, Alzheimer’s and many other debilitating illnesses, but we should not be so inhumane as to compound that suffering by taking the lives of innocent, defenseless embryonic children.

Aside from the ethical considerations, the dismal results from clinical trials using human embryonic stem cells argue against their continuance.

Dr. Robin Smith, president of the Stem for Life Foundation, explains in her 2013 book, “The Healing Cell,” that at the time of publication there were 4,300 adult stem cell trials and “over 70 diseases where adult stem cell therapies are part of clinical care.” Thus far, adult stem cell research has yielded dozens of treatments for illnesses ranging from skin cancer to heart attacks to brittle bone disease.

In contrast, embryonic stem cell research has been taking place in the United States since 1998, but so far has failed to produce meaningful results, despite being extremely well-funded. The media rarely points out this fact and the great success of adult stem cell research.

Let us take this opportunity to speak up in favor of ethical, effective research that helps those who are suffering and respects all people, born and unborn. I am grateful for everyone who has shown generosity toward those suffering from ALS, and in doing so, carried out the commandment to “love one another.” May we never forget that unborn children are our neighbor with an inherent right to life and dignity, in spite of abortion advocates’ claims to the contrary. As Pope Francis has challenged us, we cannot be a “throw away” culture when it comes to human life.

Those interested in supporting ethical research can visit : www.jp2mri.org or www.stemforlife.org

The Most Rev. Samuel J. Aquila is the eighth bishop of Denver and its fifth archbishop. His episcopal motto is, “Do whatever he tells you" (Jn 2:5).

© 1999-2014 Archdiocese of Denver

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