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THE ‘ice-bucket challenge’ seems to be the most recent rave with national personalities joining in. Throughout the world, and now, even in the Philippines, people recognize the nobility of the cause: research on the dreaded Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS), more popularly known as Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
Act of Compassion not a Fad
Mitch Albom poignantly chronicled the deterioration of one stricken with the disease in his very popular book “Tuesdays with Morrie”. Those from older generations may recall how Lou Gehrig bade the world of baseball — and the world — a moving farewell after having been diagnosed with the disease. It is therefore disturbing, to say the least, that some have trivialized the ‘ice-bucket challenge’ by making of the act of dousing oneself with iced water a fad, rather than a gesture of solidarity with all who suffer from the disease and with those who do research on its alleviation.
Embryonic Stem Cell Research?
There have been disturbing reports, however, that ALS research involves the use of stem-cells, and this is not surprising. ALS is a degenerative disorder and stem-cells apparently hold out the promise of reversing the death and degeneration of brain cells, in particular. Stem-cells however are most readily harvested from embryos, and it is in this regard that this type of research is ethically problematic.
On February 22, 1987, the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith issued an “Instruction on Respect for Human Life in Its Origin and on the Dignity of Procreation.” In respect to experimentation on embryos, the Instruction teaches: “No objective, even though noble in itself such as a foreseeable advantage to science, to other human beings, or to society, can in any way justify experimentation on living human embryos or fetuses…To use human embryos or fetuses as the object or instrument of experimentation constitutes a crime against their dignity as human beings having a right to the same respect that is due to the child already born and to every human person.”
It is therefore even more condemnable when embryos are destroyed so that their pluripotent stem cells may be harvested for research for even therapeutic purposes.
It is no better when embryos are the result of ‘in vitro’ fertilization, developed purposely as a source of stem cells. The same Instruction reiterates Catholic teaching in bioethics: “Human embryos obtained in vitro are human beings and subjects with rights. Their dignity and right to life must be respected from the first moment of their existence. It is immoral to produce human embryos destined to be exploited as disposable ‘biological material’”.
ALS Association and Stem Cell Research
A statement issued by the ALS Association on stem cell research contains this declaration: “Most stem-cell research in ALS is currently focused on iPS cells, which are not burdened with ethical issues.” We are told that iPS cells are “induced pluripotent stem cells”, stem cells created from skin cells. Such cells would indeed be pluripotent, but would not be embryonic cells. As such, the ethical objection to the use of embryonic cells, whether harvested from embryos, or obtained through in vitro fertilization, would not arise. What is troubling, however, is that the very same ALS statement, in admitting that iPS cells are used in “most stem-cell research” leaves open the possibility that stem cells from objectionable sources are still used!
We are not prepared to say that the ALS Association, that has promoted the ice-bucket challenge, and all those involved in ALS research are engaged in the unethical practice of using embryonic cells. The importance of ALS research cannot be overstated. Research must proceed, for so many suffer. Human intelligence and skill must conquer this dreadful malady, because it is for this purpose that we have been given dominion over the earth as its stewards. But we must also guide the Catholic faithful, and all who heed the ethical teaching of the Church.
Pastoral Ethical Guideline
As a pastoral guideline, we therefore urge those participating in the ice-bucket challenge and making donations to ALS research to make a clear and unequivocal declaration that their donation is made on condition that none of it is to be applied to research that involves the use of embryonic stem cells, in vivo or in vitro.
Catholics who participate in the challenge and who make donations to this research must also demand of fund-raisers and organizers an assurance that none of the donations made will be applied to researches that are ethically reproved.
As long as research on ALS as well as other debilitating conditions such as Parkinson’s Diseases and Alzheimer’s keep within the confines of the ethical demands of human dignity, they will be encouraged by the Church, and our Catholic faithful will be urged to support them with generosity and with charity for all who suffer.
August 27, 2014, Feast of Saint Monica
+ SOCRATES VILLEGAS
Archbishop of Lingayen-Dagupan