The “ice bucket challenge” has taken the internet by storm over the past several weeks, and participants have raised over $22 million dollars to combat ALS, a rare neurodegenerative condition that has no cure. But some anti-abortion groups are instructing their members to stop participating.
Abortion opponents are raising concerns over the fact that the ALS Association may use the flood of recent donations to help fund embryonic stem cell research, which is often part of the search for new therapies. Catholics and conservative evangelicals contend that using embryonic stem cells in research is comparable to abortion because the cells end up being destroyed.
This was a huge culture war issue during the Bush administration, but has largely faded into the background in recent years now that it doesn’t fall as clearly across party lines. Still, though, the GOP took an official stance against embryonic stem cells in the party’s 2012 platform, and scientists warned that a Mitt Romney win could end up rolling back important innovation in new treatments for diseases.
Even if Republican lawmakers aren’t as outspoken against embryonic stem cells anymore, right-wing abortion opponents remain vocal on the issue. As Religion News Services reports, two blog posts on Patheos last week first suggested that the ice bucket challenge might not be pro-life. Soon, other groups started weighing in. “It’s such a shame that the ALS Association…chooses to support research that thrives from experimenting on and killing tiny, innocent human beings,” Lila Rose, the president of Live Action, said in a statement on Wednesday.
A Roman Catholic diocese in Ohio took it a step further, releasing a letter encouraging the 113 Catholic schools in its jurisdiction to “immediately cease” any plans to raise funds for the ALS Association. The Archdiocese of Cincinnati is asking people to donate to the John Paul II Medical Research Institute in Iowa City, which supports “research that is pro-life driven,” instead. “We appreciate the compassion that has caused so many people to engage in this,” Dan Andriacco, the spokesman for the Archdiocese, said. “But it’s a well established moral principle that a good end is not enough. The means to that ends must be morally licit.”
The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops has not yet issued any similar directives on a larger scale, telling the Associated Press that the Cincinnati diocese’s actions are considered to be “a local matter.”
In response to a inquiry about the growing controversy, a spokesperson for the ALS Association provided a statement to ThinkProgress clarifying that the organization 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),” the statement explains. “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.”
Other experts in the field agree that, despite the recent concerns, ALS research does not necessarily require the use of embryonic stem cells.
“Embryonic stem cells certainly always bring up ethical and political issues for all research, not just for ALS,” Dr. Steve Perrin, the CEO of the ALS Therapy Development Institute, which does not conduct embryonic stem cell research, told ThinkProgress. “But the bottom line, specifically for ALS, is that there’s no real reason for organizations to be funding that type of research anymore with the advent of new advances in technology.”
Most researchers agree that adult stem cells — located in the adult brain and spinal cord — can’t totally replace the need for embryonic stem cells. But scientists are largely optimistic about other recent discoveries in this area. Induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells, or regular adult cells that can be genetically altered to change their form, may be able to bolster research efforts without the need for using as many embryonic stem cells. And some researchers are working on developing a way to make embryonic stem cells without using an actual embryo.
Perrin also pointed out that the money being raised by the ice bucket challenge isn’t earmarked for any particular studies yet, so it’s not necessarily dedicated to research involving embryos. “A clear plan on how to disperse the funds to ongoing research projects is the biggest outstanding question,” he said.
Outside of stem cells, the anti-abortion community has recently been accused of staying silent on other current issues in the news that may relate to their issue space. In a piece published at the Nation this week, Michelle Goldberg pointed out that abortion opponents haven’t spoken out on the use of tear gas against protesters in Ferguson, despite the fact that those chemicals are scientifically considered to be “abortifacients” because they’ve been proven to harm fetuses and induce miscarriages.