It was bound to happen. Sooner or later someone was going to nominate me for the latest craze of the ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’. One of our youth leaders issued the challenge, so yesterday (Sunday) morning I had a bucket of water and ice cubes poured over my head just prior to preaching my sermon. We were able to maximise the moment by encouraging the congregation to pull out their cellphones (most of them had already done so to take a photo or video) and to send a text donation to the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association. If you live in Ireland, and have not already done so, I encourage you to text the letters MND to 50300 to make an instant €2 donation.
However, before I took the challenge or made a donation, I took care to find out what the Irish MND Association’s stand is on embryonic stem cell research. I am no scientist, but I understand that there are two types of stem cells. Adult stem cells can be harvested and grown in various ways. Embryonic stem cells are obtained by creating a human embryo, and the embryo is then destroyed in the harvesting process. For most Christians this creates an ethical dilemma.
First off, Motor Neurone Disease (known in the United States as ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease) is a horrible and fatal affliction. Anyone with even a flicker of compassion in their hearts should be supportive of efforts to carry out research to find treatments or a cure.
However, many people (including myself) believe that human life starts at conception. This means that embryonic stem cell research involves creating a human being with the express intention of killing them before birth for the purposes of medical experimentation.
So, we have an ethical dilemma. If a human embryo is indeed viewed as a person, then is it justified to carry out fatal medical experimentation on it even if it helps find a cure for a horrible disease that might end up afflicting friends and family members? My answer is a decided ‘No’. Several years ago I visited the museum at Dachau Concentration Camp in Germany. I stood in tears as I saw photographs of inmates undergoing torture and eventual death in experiments conducted by Nazi doctors. I decided that day that no medical advance, even if it were to save millions of lives, is worth non-consensual experimentation on another human being. A human embryo may not have laughed, loved and played music like those poor guys in Dachau, indeed it doesn’t even have the photogenic cuddliness of a rabbit or a puppy, but it is IMHO nevertheless a human person and has a right to be protected.
Now, back to the Ice Bucket Challenge. I am aware that the major charity in the US that is benefiting from this profusion of cold showers funds embryonic stem cell research. However, I understand that they will honour your wishes if you make a donation and specify that it not be used to fund research that involves the destruction of human embryos. There are also other Stateside charities that are tackling MND in a way that would be consistent with the ethics of most Christians.
In Ireland, as it turns out, experimentation on human embryos is forbidden by law. The Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association spends most of its income on providing help and support for those who are already suffering from the disease (including nursing).
So, keep tipping those ice buckets. Keep donating (important, as churchgoers on average give much more to charities than do non-churchgoers). And let’s try to do so in a way that is consistent with our respect for the value of all human life.