ALS and the Ice Bucket Challenge

What is ALS?

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) is a progressively degenerative neurological disease.  It is also known as “Lou Gehrig’s Disease,” named for the popular baseball player who died of the malady in 1941, just 17 days shy of his 39th birthday.

ALS is a fatal condition that affects approximately 5,600 people each year according to the ALS Association.  It is estimated that as many as 30,000 Americans are affected by the disease at any given time.

Presently there is no cure for ALS.  Some treatments ease symptoms and one treatment, Riluzole, is estimated to extend survival by several months.

The Ice Bucket Challenge

The “ice bucket challenge” is a fund raising and public awareness campaign of the ALS Association.  Being doused with a bucket of ice water and sharing the experience via social media has dramatically heightened society’s awareness of ALS and has brought in a huge surge of financial support for the ALS Association.  According to an August 22, 2014 post on the ALS Association website, the campaign has raised more than $53 million for ALS research.

 The Issue

From a conservative Christian and pro-life perspective, the primary point of contention about the effort is the admission by the ALS Association that it presently funds one study that uses embryonic stem cells – a process that requires the destruction of human life in its embryonic stage in order to extract stem cells.

The ALS Association defends embryonic stem cell research, claiming they will leave “no stone unturned” in the quest for a cure.  Opponents of that kind of research are justly offended.

The Case to Boycott the Ice Bucket Challenge

Life begins at conception.  It is a testimony supported not only by biology but also by Scripture (i.e., Psalm 51:5).  Advocates of using stem cells claim it provides the best chance for discovering a cure to this fatal condition.  Perhaps, yet from the Scriptural perspective, life has an intrinsic value rooted in its Creator and Redeemer.  Taking life, even for the noble intention of potentially helping others, has no Scriptural support.  Conversely, protecting it and caring for it permeates the pages of Scripture.

There is substantial pressure to participate in the ice bucket challenge.  Celebrities, friends and family members are jumping on the bandwagon, and the social networks are filling the Internet and airwaves with pictures, videos and testimonials all focused on raising money to beat ALS.

ALS is a terrible affliction.  It is noble to seek its cure but to do so without acknowledging its limits is wrong.  One such limit is research when it costs the lives of others.  It was the gruesome revelations from the Nazi eugenic experiments that made this point exceptionally clear.

What modern science has done, however, is place human life under a microscope that shades the value of life by its cognizance, wantedness, and productivity (CWP) and then wraps it in the banner of autonomy or “choice.”  Therefore, life at its earliest state, from the moment of fertilization, is often deemed expendable because it does not have a perceptible cognizance or self-awareness.  Harvesting “leftover” IVF embryos means they are not wanted.  The argument for productivity is framed to permit destruction for the sake of research as the most productive use of unwanted embryos.  And because embryos are treated more as property than people, it is the autonomous choice of the parent(s) whether to dispose of this life.

Many pro-life groups and conservative Christian agencies advocate boycotting the ice bucket challenge for three simple reasons:

  1. They do not want to support the destruction of human life;
  2. They want to send a clear message that it is wrong to take human life; and
  3. There are alternatives.

Often lost in all the rhetoric is that there are worthy alternatives – agencies researching treatments and cures for ALS that use only adult stem cells.  Two such agencies would be The John Paul II Medical Research Institute in Iowa City, Iowa and the Midwest Stem Cell Therapy Center at KU Medical Center in Kansas City, Kansas.  Using adult stem cells does not involve the termination of life in order to obtain them.

These are the reasons some advocate boycotting the ice bucket challenge.

The Case for Getting Wet

There is, however, another perspective and it has to do with the way we frame the premier Christian mission in life.  That mission is to share Christ and help people stay in accord with God’s will and not endanger their souls?

It is not enough to call out error; to condemn evil; or to isolate ourselves for that which is bad.  Scripture clearly teaches that there is a goal in calling out sin and error.  That goal is not to appear right in contrast to the error (Matthew 7:1-5; Romans 3:23).

Our goal is to reflect God’s goal, which is the salvation of all people (1 Timothy 2:4).  To do that requires the nurturing of a relationship to have a forum to witness.  We are to turn the other cheek (Luke 6:29); to be gentle towards everyone (Philippians 4:5); to be patient with others (Ephesians 4:2) and to be loving, even when it comes to correcting error (1 Peter 4:8).

Yes, the ALS Association is wrong to fund research involving terminating lives in their embryonic stage to extract stem cells.  The question, therefore, is how do we show compassion for those afflicted with ALS and establish a relationship that permits us to testify to the truth and to the love of God for us through Christ?

Money talks and we face a practical obstacle with the ice bucket challenge.  Depending on the reports you read, the ice bucket challenge campaign has already brought to the ALS Association more than 20 times the income it received last year at this time.  For an agency that already accepts embryonic stem cell research, it is difficult to imagine a boycott substantial enough to garner much attention.  Huge financial results from the campaign speaks loudly.

So perhaps, getting wet may open a door.  On Facebook you will find numerous testimonies of those who have wrestled with a friend or loved one who is suffering with or who has died from ALS.  Their stories are moving.  I am certain many or most of those who support ALS research are unware that the ALS Association supports embryonic stem cell research.  A boycott that attracts some media attention will be a revelation for many of those people.

The impact will be minimal.  For years pro-life Christians have denounced the destruction of embryonic life for stem cells.  Nevertheless the research continues and expands.  Even many Christians who have not grown sufficiently in God’s Word, have bought into the CWP mentality of society, wrapping it in an argument of autonomy.  We have seen it in the abortion debate for decades.

If we want to testify to the truth while building a foundation for discourse and instruction in the will of God, are there other ways than boycotting the ice bucket challenge?

The ALS Association has announced that donors can restrict their gift and prohibit it from going to embryonic stem cell research.  As a result many Christians have taken the ice bucket challenge and as they promoted it on their Facebook page announced they had done it and publicly asked ALS not to permit the receipts to kill unborn children.  I find it to be a refreshing and positive testimony while wanting to testify to the truth.

I know the ALS Association can do some fund shifting with unrestricted funds to continue supporting embryonic stem cell research.  But remember the goal: to establish a relationship so a Christian can credibly testify to the truth in a spirit of patience and careful instruction.  Most any charitable agency is far more receptive to a donor who supports the big picture and offers gentle encouragement to correct error than to a non-donor announcing a boycott.

Ask yourself, when it comes to being corrected when you have made a mistake, how receptive are you to correction from those you have never met compared to correction from those you count as friends?  How receptive are you to correction when it comes gently, patiently and genuinely as compared to when it has a tone of bitterness and judgment?

My point simply is this – If we are concerned first about the soul, then maybe getting wet opens the door for us to talk about our concerns.  Maybe restricting a gift to support ethical research with the ALS Association will provide the opportunity to instruct those who need instruction about what is wrong, what is right, and why we pursue that which is right.

I encourage caution to avoid quick judgment on those who boycott and those who do not.  It was Jesus who sat down with the tax collectors and prostitutes of His time not to endorse sin but to build a relationship of genuine concern for the soul and then provide correction and direction.  Something to think about!

About Bob F.

Born in Pleasanton, CA on October 5, 1956 and raised primarily in Lake Geneva, WI. I am the oldest of four sons to my parents, Bob and Helen Fleischmann who presently live next door to me in rural Wisconsin. I am an ordained Lutheran minister and I serve as the national director of Christian Life Resources.
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