Pouring Cold Water on the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge

by Dr. Georgia Purdom on August 20, 2014

If you have been on any social media in the last few weeks, watched the evening news, or clicked on a video link from a friend in your email, you have surely seen people dumping buckets of ice water (or attempting to) over their heads. The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is intended to promote awareness of and raise funds for researching a cure for this awful neurological disease. Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease, is a disease that causes degeneration of the nerves in the brain and spinal cord. Over time, those suffering from the disease lose control of their muscles, eventually preventing them from any voluntary movement including swallowing. Many patients eventually die of respiratory failure or pneumonia as the muscles that support breathing no longer function. The disease is always fatal and has no known cure. I remember several years ago one of my father’s co-workers died from ALS in his 40s leaving behind a young family.

What a potent reminder of the fallen nature of the world we live in. We know that death and disease are intruders into God’s originally perfect creation, and we are right to work to reverse the effects of the Curse brought about by man’s rebellion. As Christians work to study diseases like this one or give money to support research for cures, they are seeking to love their neighbors and serve them. They are walking in the footsteps of Jesus, who healed many people of their diseases and called His disciples to do the same. Supporting medical research is one very practical way Christians can love others as Jesus did.

But there is a moral concern that comes with supporting research: should a Christian give money to an organization that would seek to find a cure by violating biblical ethics? In the specific context, the ALS Association that is promoting the frigid challenge promotes an unethical search for a cure. Many researchers are willing to use embryonic stem cells and cells taken from “electively aborted” fetuses to search for a cure.1 Undoubtedly, some of the money generated through this challenge will end up supporting these forms of research in one way or another. While it is difficult to make direct connections between the money you give and which trials those dollars go to support, the ALS Association does provide funding for research involving embryonic stem cells, including from aborted children. On the ALS Association page discussing stem cell research we read the following:

Despite encouraging data that transplanted fetal cells can survive over long periods of time in the damaged area, few studies have shown neurons making appropriate contact with their targets. A recent report demonstrates that modified embryonic stem cells can generate a large number of dopamine neurons, the neurons missing in Parkinson's disease. This study showed some functional recovery in an animal model of Parkinson's which is very encouraging.2
While these “transplanted fetal cells” can come from cord blood and other sources, there are researchers using embryonic stem cells and aborted children to find a treatment or cure for ALS, and the ALS Association sponsors their research. The ethical problem is that these forms of research involve the taking of a human life in order to potentially save other lives. In an email responding to this concern from a pro-life organization, an ALS Association spokesperson stated the following:
The ALS Association 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. In fact, donors may stipulate that their funds not be invested in this study or any stem cell project. Under very strict guidelines, The Association may fund embryonic stem cell research in the future.3
You can read more about the ethical concerns with using embryonic stem cells in medical research in this chapter which I wrote with Dr. Tommy Mitchell in the New Answers Book 3: What About Cloning and Stem Cells?

While it is great to raise awareness of this disease, the ALS Association and some of the researchers they support are willing to destroy lives in order to attempt to save lives. This is not an ethical position that a Christian can consistently hold. In light of these concerns, I want to urge you to be careful about whom you offer donations to, especially when it comes to medical research. While our ministry does not recommend any organization in particular, we encourage you to seek out a charity that you can support with a clear conscience.

Keep fighting the good fight of the faith!

(This blog was written with assistance from Roger Patterson.)


1 In a research study posted by the Northeast ALS Consortium (NEALS), the researchers identify the use of cells from an electively aborted fetus in a clinical study involving a cell transplant therapy. Though the funding for this particular study is identified as coming from a different source, the ALS Association appears at the bottom of this page as a “generous sponsor” of NEALS http://www.alsconsortium.org/trial.php?id=12. Return to text

2 “Stem Cells,” http://www.alsa.org/research/about-als-research/stem-cells.html. Return to text

3 This statement was posted on the website of the American Life League as correspondence seeking to clarify how various charities spend funds in research. http://www.all.org/charities. Return to text

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