Earlier this week, 11-year-old Elenia walked into the living room to tell me that several of her friends had nominated her to participate in the now-viral Ice Bucket Challenge, where you dump a bucket of ice water over your head within 24 hours and then nominate three people to do the same, who then nominate three people, etc. If a tagged person does not complete the challenge within the time frame, they’re supposed to make a donation to the ALS Association for continued research to find a cure for what is better known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
Later, I saw the challenge all over my Facebook feed. Clicking on several links, it became clear it was more than a silly pouring-ice-over-the-head publicity stunt. But I also discovered that the ALS Association openly supports embryonic stem cell research. These cells are usually obtained from embryos left over after in vitro fertilization, embryos some say are useless and/or would be destroyed anyway. Advocates of embryonic stem cell research laud its potential, but the Center for Bioethics and Human Dignity disagrees:
“Though embryonic stem cells have been purported as holding great medical promise, reports of actual clinical success have been few. Instead, scientists conducting research on embryonic stem cells have encountered significant obstacles—including tumor formation, unstable gene expression, and an inability to stimulate the cells to form the desired type of tissue.”
The center goes on to state that since embryonic stem cell research by nature destroys a living human being, it is wrong. Other forms of stem cells (including adult, placenta, and umbilical cord) do not destroy life, so are therefore morally acceptable forms of research and medical application.
The longer Elenia and I discussed the challenge, the more ethical issues we unearthed: Why are we creating multiple embryos during the in vitro process in hopes of one or two pregnancies? If we shouldn’t use embryos for stem cells, what should we then do with already-existing embryos?
Her last question hit hard: “Mom, if this is wrong, why are all my Christian friends sending me this challenge?”
Perhaps, I told her, because they didn’t check into it any more than you did before we did some research. Or maybe they, too, are wooed by the supposed promise of embryonic stem cells. If Mom has cancer, or Dad has ALS, or Grandma suffered and finally died of Parkinson’s, maybe it’s OK—just this once—to use the latest technology. Isn’t a person we can see more important than a few cells in a petri dish?
It is no coincidence that, while we sat at the computer researching, we stumbled across several links to the ISIS atrocities in Iraq. As we discussed the possibility of terrorists killing children, it struck us both that, principally, there isn’t any difference between harvesting embryonic stem cells and the killing of Christians in Iraq. Both are human. Both are alive. Both are image-bearers. We who are aghast at the potential genocide in Iraq are signing up for a challenge-gone-viral that, at its root, supports the same crime we supposedly are decrying in the Middle East: murder.
And that is how the Ice Bucket Challenge turned into a lesson on principles, absolutism, relativism, the origins of life, embryo adoption, bioethical dilemmas, and why people—even Christians—do things like signing up for challenges they don’t fully understand.