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Despite growing calls to the contrary in many Catholic circles, I took the ALS Ice Bucket challenge earlier today at a Boy Scout Eagle Service project. So, I gather folks might want to know why.

Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease, is a terrible muscular disease in which people lose their skeletal muscle function, including the muscles that help us breathe. It was 75 years ago this summer that Yankee legend, Lou Gehrig, announced his departure from baseball in a speech that has become as iconic as the Iron Horse himself.

A major research and advocacy organization, the ALS Association (ALSA) has been the beneficiary of some $40 million raised in an awareness campaign that has as a simple device people calling out friends and family, challenging them to either give $100 or have ice water dumped on their heads. Many, such as your humble author (with a little frat boy left in him), have elected to do both. The problem for some is that ALSA has been an advocate for embryonic stem cell research, which tears apart a human being in the embryonic stage of development and uses its cells for research purposes. That’s a major hurdle. But now for some facts.

ALSA has said that they have one embryonic stem cell line that has been funded by a private donor, and that work on this line of cells is nearing the end of its lifespan. That’s not hard to believe . Almost nobody pursues embryonic stem cell research anymore. The reason is simple.

They. Just. Don’t. Work.

They are too young, immature, and undifferentiated to control. They grow into tumors. There are too many unknown variables. They are a nightmare that have produced zero return on investment, and for both parties in grant applications, that’s a big, big deal. Labs have been abandoning them like rats jumping from a sinking ship.

Researchers now use induced pluripotent stem cells (iPSC’s), which are generated directly from adult cells. We also now have hundreds of therapeutic uses from adult stem cells. So, embryonic stem cells are yesterday’s failed experiment. Still, that won’t assuage some who are entirely intolerant of any organization that might have ESC’s still in research. For the faithful Catholic this is where the ethical waters get a bit muddy.

The National Catholic Bioethics Center recently weighed in, offering alternative organizations not using ESC’s. That’s fine, but consider that the same organization doesn’t have a moral problem with using vaccines cultured in cell lines derived from aborted fetuses:

Whether immunization with these vaccines is permissible depends upon whether their use involves the Catholic in cooperation with evil. Briefly, formal cooperation arises when an individual shares in the intention or the action of another who does what is wrong. Immoral material cooperation occurs when one who cooperates makes an essential contribution to the circumstances of a wrongdoer’s act. Thus the question about vaccines derived from aborted fetuses concerns whether or not their use involves the Catholic in immoral cooperation with the evil of abortion.

The answer, in short, would appear to be “no.” For it seems impossible for an individual to cooperate with an action that is now completed and exists in the past. Clearly, use of a vaccine in the present does not cause the one who is immunized to share in the immoral intention or action of those who carried out the abortion in the past. Neither does such use provide some circumstance essential to the commission of that past act. Thus use of these vaccines would seem permissible.

The author, Dr. Ted Furton, is from my conversations with him, and my reading of his material, a profoundly good, moral, and decent Catholic man and scholar. His rationale in the case of the vaccines in question can be applied to donating to ALSA, which is winding down its sole line of ESC’s (that have private funding). It’s an old cell line, just as the vaccine culture line is an old cell line. Unlike the vaccine cell line, ALSA’s one ESC line is on a dead end trajectory.

So, what’s really at issue here? Stem cell researchers are licking their wounds after more than a decade of fruitless endeavor. Virtually all recognize that the morally unproblematic ASC’s and iPSC’s are bearing great fruit, thanks to their being more mature and differentiated (hence more easily controlled). Ought we withhold funding from researchers at ALSA whose administrators today pay weak lip service (and no more money) to one of science’s greatest boondoggles?

For what it’s worth, as a Catholic Molecular Biologist who has raged for a decade at this ugly abuse of science, I think it’s more important to fund the research community’s redemption than to rub their collective nose in past sins. ALSA has many great minds on staff. New money goes to morally acceptable research. Like the son in the parable who initially refused his father’s request, they have come about and are now doing what we have called upon them to do for over a decade.

We need to stop pouring cold water on the Ice Bucket Challenge. I plan to donate to ALSA and to earmark the money for research on iPSC’s (kinda redundant, as the ESC line is funded by a sole donor). However, the earmark sends a message, a good message for a good cause.

I hope that it helps to end this dread disease and that we can look back and have ownership in having a part in it all, and having funded moral means to such a good end.

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In light of our discussions on the Phoenix case, this one is going into the side panel as a permanent feature. NCBC offers free emergency ethics consults 24/7. This is worth having on the Rolodex or electronic equivalent.

From NCBC:

To submit a consultation request via our website, please click to navigate to our consultation page. The NCBC provides free consultation services to individuals facing difficult ethical decisions related to health care. In emergency situations, an NCBC ethicist is available 24 hours a day, 7 days a week by calling 215-877-2660. NCBC ethicists do not provide legal or medical advice.

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