Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Why I (Still) Cannot Accept the Ice-Bucket Challenge

In my previous post I detailed why I cannot accept the ice-bucket challenge. Since then, I've received a lot of feedback. As of writing this, my original post has over 1.5 million hits, which is a lot considering normally about 3 people read my blog (and 2 of those people are my mom and my wife). There's a few common responses I've received from a number of different people, and I wanted to take a moment to respond to each of these.

"An embyro is not a baby."

First, I've received responses from people who have been critical of my stance and argued that a fertilized embryo is merely a collection of cells--nothing remotely like a baby or child. To these people, I'd like to ask, at what point does human life begin? Greg Koukl simplifies the issue of abortion (and by extension embryonic stem cell research), saying this:
I want to simplify what some people think is a difficult issue: abortion. There is only one question that needs to be answered to resolve the moral question of abortion. That question is: what is it? What is the unborn? Abortion entails destroying and discarding something that is alive. Whether it’s right or not to do that depends entirely on the answer to only one question: what is it?
If abortion does not take the life of an innocent human being, then no justification for abortion is necessary. You don’t have to talk about choice, privacy, and your personal financial circumstances. If it doesn’t take an innocent human being’s life, just have the abortion.
However, if it does take the life of an innocent human being, then none of those justifications normally given for abortion are adequate. We do not take the lives of innocent human beings simply because they are in the way, or because we have a choice, or because we have privacy with our doctor, or any of those other reasons.
This simplifies the issue immensely. First, you figure out what is it that dies in an abortion. Then, you will have the answer to the moral question. Yes, it is that simple.
Some people may not be convinced that human life begins at conception as I am. But I think that most would concede that it's at least possible that it does. And if there's even a sliver of a chance that life begins at conception, then destroying it is evil.

Imagine this. We're about to destroy a building. It's an old, worthless building, and it needs to be demolished to make way for a new scientific research facility. It's set up for demolition with explosive charges. But then one of the workers says that they thought they heard a baby crying inside the building. There's only a chance that there's a life in there, and if we delay the demolition, then it will delay construction, and important scientific research will be delayed. Do we demolish the building anyway? No! Of course not! We do whatever we can to save the possible human life in that building. Why? Because human life is precious.  So for me, the possibility of my donation funding research fueled by dead children is unacceptable. Unless the ALS Association can guarantee that they won’t subsidize embryonic stem cell research with my donation, then I’m going to look for other places to make a difference.

"It's not like an embryo can feel pain!"

Second, I've heard from people who've said that maybe an embryo is a human life, but even so it's okay to destroy it because it doesn't have feeling or consciousness, and much good can be done by it's destruction. To these people, I'd like to ask what is it that makes human life valuable? Some would say that life is only valuable to the extent that it can be experienced. For example, Peter Singer, the Princeton University bioethics professor, has argued that abortions may be acceptable even after babies are born. He argues that newborns lack the essential characteristics of personhood (which he defines as "rationality, autonomy, and self-consciousness"), and therefore "killing a newborn baby is never equivalent to killing a person, that is, a being who wants to go on living" but rather, he says "Sometimes it is not wrong at all." But (almost) all sane people have innate moral knowledge that murdering an innocent baby is wrong. Period.

Ultimately, this line of thinking reduces to the argument that it is the quality of a person's life that determines the value of a person's life. But if that were true, then we could justify all sorts of murder! We can imagine scenarios in which people are temporarily in a coma, or paralyzed so that they cannot feel pain or experience consciousness. Surely we would not think it okay to discard these lives!

This line of thought is not a new idea. In fact, a form of this idea gained traction and popularity after emerging in the 1870s as Social Darwinism. This utilitarian ethic roots the value of human life in how an individual human can benefit humanity as a whole. It holds that the Darwinian concept of "survival of the fittest" can be applied to societal structures so that we weed out weak humans while promoting the survival of strong humans, thus bettering humanity and society. This concept ultimately paved the path which the Nazi's used to justify the holocaust, claiming they were weeding out society's weak elements.

By contrast, the Christian perspective is that human life is valuable because we are each created in the image of God (Gen. 1:27, 9:6). We each reflect and represent God to a degree, and so humans have distinctive value and worth among God's creation.  And so each human life is precious and valuable, not based upon how much of life it experiences or the quality of a person's life or its contribution to humanity, but rather human life is intrinsically valuable because our very nature (albeit corrupted by sin) reflects the majesty of our Creator.

"Why not participate in the ice-bucket challenge and send your donation elsewhere?"

Many people have pointed out that there are many commendable pro-life organizations doing great work for ALS that I could direct my donation to.  So, they ask, why don't I just accept the challenge, and then send my donation to one of these organizations? Let me try to answer this.

My thought was this: If I accept the ice-bucket challenge, and mention at the end of the challenge that I'm donating to a pro-life organization, then most likely the next few people who accept my challenge may do the same--which would be great. But by the time it passes to a few people down the line, I'm guessing the pro-life message would be lost and people would be donating to the ALS Association again. In other words, the ice-bucket challenge is just as much about raising publicity as it is about raising money, and I didn't want to send publicity in the wrong direction by participating in the challenge that the ALS Association designed. What I was hoping would happen is that someone would be creative and start a different type of challenge that I could participate in (maybe dumping colored water on your head, or something entirely different--I'm not that creative). That's what I was trying to get at at the end of my previous blog entry. Also, at this point, it seems that not doing the challenge (at least for me) was a far more effective way to reach people about the serious ethical problems of embryonic stem cell research.

Just to be clear in regards to this last question, if you think about this and still decide to take the challenge and donate to a pro-life organization, then I have absolutely no judgment of you whatsoever. In my mind, this is not a black and white issue. It's a delicate balance of trying to live in this world without being of this world, and that may look different for different people.

So my encouragement is the same as before. Please think deeply about the causes you support and your reasons for supporting them. Don't jump on the bandwagon in a frenzy to belong and be part of something. Jump on the bandwagon because you've thoughtfully decided that the bandwagon is a virtuous place to be.

"What pro-life organizations can I donate towards that will benefit people with ALS?"

Many people have asked me (or told me) about alternate places to donate that will not support embryonic stem cell research. I have chosen to only publicize organizations that I have personally been able to confirm do not support embryonic stem cell research. The only medical research organization with research focused on ALS that I have seen be publicly explicit about not doing embryonic stem cell research is the John Paul II Medical Research Institute. You can make donations at their website: www.jp2mri.org

One alternative worthy cause is Judson's Legacy, which focuses on a rare genetic disorder known as Krabbe disease. This organization was founded by personal friends of mine who I've watched walk through some of the darkest times I could imagine, and yet have found hope in the midst of tremendous suffering and pain.  Check out their website for more information: judsonslegacy.org

"How can I be better equipped to think about these important issues?"

Finally, some people have contacted me asking how they can be better equipped to think about these important issues.  Below are some resources on pro-life issues to help you be equipped to know what you believe and why you believe it so that you can stand for life. This world needs more thoughtful, intelligent, warmhearted Christians who wear Christ attractively, so that this world sees our message as credible and true. I've listed these resources in order from beginner resources (for those who are just beginning to explore these sorts of questions), to more advanced resources (for those with deeper questions). I sincerely hope these are helpful!


Jen said...

Thanks for this post. I tried to reach out to you on twitter.

As the mom to many embryos through embryo adoption, may I encourage you to refine your language to say "give embryos a chance to continue living" or "a chance to be born" instead of "a chance at life." The truth of the matter is they already have live, which is why Embryonic Stem Cell Research is so problematic. This subtle nuance in language is an important distinction to make to continue to affirm that these embryos already do have life. "A chance at life" implies that they do not currently have one.

Thanks for your consideration,

deebrio said...

Hello Nathanael, I wanted to let you know that ALS Canada does not do embryonic stem cell research, in case you wanted to share that with everyone.

But I do see your point in not doing the challenge.

Unknown said...

I do have several questions about your stance on what you call "pro-life".

First, do you believe that any termination of pregnancy, for any reason, is unacceptable?

Second, if a woman is made pregnant as a result of involuntary sex (rape or incest), do you believe that she should be required, by law, to carry the pregnancy to term?

If your answer to the second question is anything other than an unqualified and unequivocal "no", please explain why.

Third, regarding the Savita Halappanavar case, please tell me what you think about it.

Finally, do you think that a Christian, or a person worshiping any other religion, has the right to impose their religious beliefs on others, either under enforced social custom, or under color of law?

Following up on that, if you say "yes", would you willingly submit to the laws of the United States if another religion imposes its beliefs upon you under that law (for instance, Islam's belief that the only right a woman has is to be raped whenever a Muslim man (and only a Muslim man) wants to)?

Thank you!

Unknown said...

As I was researching for a Facebook note about the Ice Water Challenge I came across your blog.

Thank you for your articulate, thoughtful post.

I linked to your blog because I sourced you for some info I used.

I am linking the note so you can look at it if you want anything removed please let me know.

May God bless your ministry

Nathanael King said...

Hi Theo Kamis,

Rather than answer your specific questions, I'd like to direct you to the resources I cited towards the end of my blog. Suffice it to say that I think a child in the womb has the same moral status and should be afforded the same rights as a child outside of the womb.


Random Thoughts said...

Thank you for your article it was eye opening for me and I've shared it so others may become aware where their money may be going. I also read http://frcblog.com/2014/08/send-your-ice-bucket-challenge-donation-ethical-research/ and they mentioned alternative places to donate, also.
Thank you. I'm sure writing this and answering comments has taken up a lot of your time.

Unknown said...

Hi Nathanael,

Thank you and God Bless You for this article. I was asked to do this challenge by a close family member, the same day I posted about ALS embryonic stem cell research. I was struggling on how to respond. God has answered my prayers and I was able to post your article, that is now on Christma News. You covered every aspect in a very respectful way. Thank you again.

Unknown said...

Hi Nathaniel,
I was reading your original post and you cited something from the ALS Association website about adult stem cell research being just as important as embryonic stem cell research and that they should be done together. I clicked on the link, but couldn't find where it said this. They did imply that they have done it in the past, but are now moving on to iPS cells. I would very much like to know, because I don't want to support embryonic stem cell research. And thank you for the eye opening article.

Nathanael King said...


Thanks for pointing this out. It appears that the ALS Association changed their website as of yesterday, possibly in an attempt to downplay their funding of embryonic stem cell research. The original website can be viewed here: Screenshot

Unknown said...

I love this. I couldn't agree more. I am so sick of people arguing about common sense. How do they think WE started?!!? I'm not doing the challenge either. But I am on my knees praying for an end to this senseless killing called abortion.

Unknown said...

This is a statement from ALS Canada - "We don’t support or have not supported any research with human embryos or human embryonic stem cells .

For any questions, regarding the ALS Canada Research Program, please contact David Taylor, Director of Research, dt@als.ca".

John N. Kachale III said...

Thanks for these two clear and insightful pieces, Nathaniel King.

John N. Kachale III said...
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John N. Kachale III said...
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Anonymous said...

A couple of dissenting comments:

1. Billons of embryos do not make it to full grown humans. Who/what is the cause of this? If you answer God, i then ask why is it ok for God to prevent full term growth but not humans? If you answer that God works in mysterious ways, why is his mysterious ways subject to different moral standards than our own?
2. The idea that human beings were "created" in the image of an all power "Creator" is simply not backed by science. Homo sapiens evolved from other species. This is a widely established FACT supported by tons of evidence. Ignorance of this FACT does not support any argument that claims humans are a "superior" or "sacred" or "chosen" species.
3. You can choose to argue that life beings at conception, (hopefully its your choice and you are not blindly following religious doctrine), but do know that there are many arguments against this. Supporters of Embryonic Stem Cells generally care much more about actual living human beings than a collection of cells.

Nathanael King said...

Hi John Milton,

Let me respond to each of your dissenting comments:

1. As a Christian, I believe that although humans are made in the image of God, we have been corrupted by sin. Sin is rebellion against our Creator and His moral laws. Humans now have a corrupted, fallen nature. And as a result of this corruption, humans experience spiritual separation from God, psychological and moral conflict with each other, and physical weakness, sickness, illness, and death. So, I believe that the cause of embryos that do not fully develop into humans is our fallen human nature. So ultimately, it is an evil that this occurs, and is the result and consequence of being a fallen, sinful race.

2. Personally, I disagree with evolution as a theory of human origins, and would lean towards intelligent design. For more on this, check out the New York Times bestseller, "Darwin's Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design" by Stephen Meyer. Also, check out "Icons of Evolution" by Jonathan Wells. Having said that, I do not think that evolutionary theory is completely at odds with humans being made in the image of God. Many Christians hold to what's called "theistic evolution," which is the view that God guided and superintended the evolutionary process and then endowed homo sapiens with a soul and consciousness and rationality, thereby creating them in His image. While I don't personally believe that, it is a viable option as a viewpoint for Christians.

3. I know that there are arguments against life beginning at conception, but I just don't think there are any good arguments that hold water for this. If I did, then I'd have to change my belief. I also know that many people support embryonic stem cell research because they believe they will help others by doing so. I simply believe that, whatever their intentions, it remains wrong to wantonly discard human life, whatever stage of development it is at. Finally, I am encouraged that it seems that most of the best stem cell research seems to be headed in the direction of using induced pluripotent stem cells, which are engineered from human skin cells. This is very encouraging as it avoids the destruction of human embryos.