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Stem Cell Concerns Don't Freeze Evangelical Enthusiasm for Ice Bucket Challenge

(UPDATED) ALS raises $100 million in 30 days; pro-life groups worry about embryonic research.
Stem Cell Concerns Don't Freeze Evangelical Enthusiasm for Ice Bucket Challenge

Tens of thousands of Americans—including dozens of evangelical leaders—have eagerly shivered and shaked their way through the ice bucket challenge, despite concerns from Catholic leaders and pro-life groups that the viral video craze may be sending millions to fund embryonic stem cell research.

Megachurch pastors including Steven Furtick and Craig Groeschel, evangelists including Nick Vujicic and Greg Laurie, CCM stars including Michael W. Smith and Tobymac, and Christian authors including Dave Ramsey and Shauna Niequist have nominated one another for the challenge, which asks participants to dump ice over their heads and/or donate to the ALS Association, the nonprofit organization for the neurological condition often called Lou Gehrig’s disease. (See videos below.)

The charity, which has garnered more than $100 million since the challenge campaign went viral in late July (compared to raising less than $3 million over the same period last year), says it primarily funds adult stem cell research:

Currently, the association is funding one study using embryonic stem cells, and the stem cell line was established many years ago under ethical guidelines set by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke; this research is funded by one specific donor, who is committed to this area of research

ALS added that “donors may stipulate that their funds not be invested in this study or any stem cell project.”

This statement came in response after blog posts and articles by Catholic leaders and organizations highlighted why funding ALS could be problematic to would-be donors.

“The obtaining of stem cells from a living human embryo … invariably causes the death of the embryo and is consequently gravely illicit,” stated the Ethicists at the National Catholic Bioethics Center, quoting Catholic teaching which noted that “research, in such cases, irrespective of efficacious therapeutic results, is not truly at the service of humanity. In fact, this research advances through the suppression of human lives that are equal in dignity to the lives of other human individuals and to the lives of the researchers themselves.”

The statement also includes several other options, such as the John Paul II Medical Research Institute, for those wishing to donate to the cause without supporting the ALS Association. The Catholic archdiocese of Cincinnati instructed participants from its schools not to donate to the ALS Association.

Lila Rose, president of pro-life advocacy group Live Action and named earlier this year as one of CT's 33 Under 33, also criticized the ALS Association for conducting embryonic stem cell research.

"It is noble to combat a deadly disease, and the ice bucket challenge definitely puts a fun spin on philanthropic efforts. That's why it's such a shame that the ALS Association, while striving to save some people, chooses to support research that thrives from experimenting on and killing tiny, innocent human beings," Rose said in a statement.

The Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission (ERLC) offers Southern Baptists an FAQ on common pro-life questions about the ice bucket challenge, whose participants include former SBC president Jack Graham.

"With the close proximity to a moral dilemma that this situation presents, it is reasonable that Christians would register hesitation and distrust towards collaborating with an organization that harbors no moral opposition to the destruction of unborn life, but instead endorses such activity," wrote the ERLC. "Christians should also consider whether their contributions are unwittingly undergirding a philosophical worldview at odds with Christian ethics."

The ERLC instead suggests "pathways to participation that don’t require moral compromise and that can allow those interested to join in the campaign without violating their conscience." The ERLC list was compiled by Christian bioethicist David Prentice.

Online for Life also answered common questions about the challenge.

Groeschel, senior pastor of LifeChurch.tv, one of America's largest churches, specifically asks on his video (below) that donations not go to embryonic research. CBN clarified on its ice bucket challenge photo that "we will be donating to an organization that does not support or use embryonic stem cell research," and nominated TBN, the 700 Club, and Regent University to follow suit. Regent students did so en masse.

One of the most notable evangelicals who suffers from Lou Gehrig’s disease is Ed Dobson, the pastor emeritus of Calvary Church in Grand Rapids. In a 2012 essay for CT's This Is Our City, Dobson wrote that his “ALS has been used by God to accomplish wonderful things for the kingdom, where even the worst suffering opened the doors to a new heavens and earth.” (CT also reviewed his memoir about suffering from ALS.)

A Facebook page which chronicles Dobson’s life since contracting ALS features dozens of individuals doing the challenge in honor of him. Dobson thanked those who had done the challenge on behalf of him on his Facebook page earlier this week.

Elevation Church’s pastor Steven Furtick also noted in his church’s video (below) that his late father had also suffered from ALS. Popular Christian writer Max Lucado’s father also died from the disease.

CT has covered ALS both in the context of right-to-die and euthanasia cases as well as the bioethics of stem cell research.

Evangelicals who have been challenged to take the ice bucket challenge include pastors at some of the country’s largest megachurches, CCM stars, and bestselling writers. Author Shauna Niequist challenged popular speaker Joy Eggerichs (another of CT’s “33 Under 33”.) Elevation Church pastor Steven Furtick nominated fellow pastors Perry Noble, Craig Groeschel, and Carl Lentz, the latter who has yet to respond.

Steven Furtick, Elevation Church

Perry Noble, NewSpring Church

Ed Young, Second Baptist Church

Author Shauna Niequist

Joy Eggerichs

Craig Groeschel, LifeChurch.tv

Greg Laurie, Harvest Ministries

Evangelist Nick Vujicic

T.D. Jakes, The Potter's House

Musician Michael W. Smith

Author Dave Ramsey

Candace Cameron Bure and Tobymac took the challenge on Instagram. David Crowder challenged Louie Giglio, Chris Tomlin, and Jon Foreman on Facebook.

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