Beliefs Ethics

Does the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge fund embryonic stem cell research?

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

(RNS) With celebrities, athletes and a handful of religious leaders on board, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge has raised millions for research for ALS, better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge (via Wikimedia Commons http://bit.ly/1pIx11B)

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

But some anti-abortion advocates are raising the alarm on whether the recipients of a charitable windfall are using the money to fund embryonic stem cell research. That’s a problem for some Catholics and evangelicals because the research had destroyed the embryos, which many consider a nascent form of human life.

Destroying the embryos, they say, is akin to abortion.

“Adult stem cell research is important and should be done alongside embryonic stem cell research as both will provide valuable insights,” a portion of the ALS Association website states. “Only through exploration of all types of stem cell research will scientists find the most efficient and effective ways to treat diseases.”

The Rev. Michael F. Duffy and Deacon Greg Kandra began to raise concerns on their blogs last week in posts that went viral.

In an email to Religion News Service, Carrie Munk, a spokeswoman for the ALS Association, said that the organization primarily funds adult stem cell research.

“Currently, The Association is funding one study using embryonic stem cells (ESC), and the stem cell line was established many years ago under ethical guidelines set by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke (NINDS); this research is funded by one specific donor, who is committed to this area of research,” she said. “The project is in its final phase and will come to an end very soon.”

Some have suggested that embryonic stem cell research could eventually be phased out by other, less controversial research.

“Many labs have replaced ESCs with induced pluripotent stem cells (iPS cells),” Munk said. “These iPS cells begin as adult human skin cells but are then reprogrammed to become stem cells, which are then ready to become other cells types.”

As of Tuesday (Aug. 19), the ALS Association has received $22.9 million in donations since July 29, compared with $1.9 million during the same time period last year. The association has seen 453,210 new donors.

ALS is a disease of the nerve cells in the brain and spinal cord that control voluntary muscle movement. The ice bucket challenge that has people from Bill Gates to Justin Timberlake on board has also raised questions about what it does for giving to charitable causes.

“The key problem is funding cannibalism. That $3 million in donations doesn’t appear out of a vacuum,” William MacAskill wrote for QZ. “Because people on average are limited in how much they’re willing to donate to good causes, if someone donates $100 to the ALS Association, he or she will likely donate less to other charities.”

Nevertheless, the challenge has quickly become a popular summer ritual. Writer Barton Swaim posted on Twitter about how the challenge has become a modern form of baptism.

Update (8/22): A Roman Catholic diocese in Ohio has discouraged its 113 schools from participating in the ice bucket challenge, saying the ALS Association’s funding of embryonic stem cell research is “in direct conflict with Catholic teaching.”

Munk said all donors to the ALS Association can stipulate where their money goes and can ask that it not pay for embryonic stem cell research.

Texas megachurch pastor T.D. Jakes is the latest religious leader to join the craze, posting his challenge to megachurch pastor Joel Osteen and others on Instagram:

About the author

Sarah Pulliam Bailey

Sarah Pulliam Bailey is a national correspondent for RNS, covering how faith intersects with politics, culture and other news. She previously served as online editor for Christianity Today where she remains an editor-at-large.

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