Thursday, August 21, 2014

The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge and how it relates to the "Life begins at conception" argument

Leave it to the Roman Catholic bishops to go and try to ruin a good thing.  The Catholic Archdiocese of Cincinnati is trying to throw the proverbial cold water on, well, cold water itself.

By now (unless you have been living under a rock for the past month or so), you have heard of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, which I preached about in my sermon this past Sunday (and which I also was nominated for and accepted, you can find the video evidence on my Facebook page if you and I are FB friends).  I, along with millions of others, have contributed to a mounting number of monetary donations that as of Tuesday have reached nearly $23 million for ALS research.  And that was two days ago, I am certain that millions more has been raised in the 48 hours since that press release.

And all of it is for trying to cure, or at least manage, a disease that kills its patients in some of the most terrifying ways possible: extremely slowly, inexorably, and with mounting degrees of difficulty to do even the simplest things before the person finally succumbs to respiratory failure, which is a clinical way of saying that this disease literally suffocates you to death because it shuts down your lungs, preventing them from processing the oxygen your body needs.

It is also a disease whose R&D was woefully underfunded until now (and to my detraction, I had no idea this was the case until the Ice Bucket Challenge went viral), but one that, like other incurable diseases like HIV/AIDS or Alzheimer's, still requires our attention and resources to try and whip.

And one of those resources is (are) embryonic stem cells: the cells taken from a fertilized human blastocyst.  Why do I use the term blastocyst instead of embryo?  Well, because a blastocyst is the cluster of cells that exists before implantation into the uterine wall.

Why on earth does that distinction matter for ALS?

Because implantation (and the placenta which forms) is how the fetus receives nutrients, including oxygen, from the mother during its prenatal development.

And Scripturally, we are taught that life enters the human form through breath: Genesis 2:7 says that God breathed the breath of life into Adam.  Breath, as the deliverance of oxygen, begins life.

And the deliverance of oxygen does not begin until usually at least day six after conception.  But the blastocysts used in embryonic stem cell research are typically from four or five days after conception.

This is why I really don't understand (and here, I do realize that I may be about to upset some of y'all, because I am about to fly in the face of what many of us have been told for decades is categorically, undeniably, doctrinally true) how we have come to believe that the Bible says life begins at conception, because when you actually sit down and read Scripture, it doesn't mention conception.  It says that we are knit together in our mother's womb (Psalm 139), not in our mother's fallopian tubes or ovaries.  It says God made us living by delivering us the breath of life, not the sperm to the egg.

And to be honest, I think there is something sacred, something profound, something powerful of imagining that life starts when the embryo nests itself into its mother's own body.

But all of this means that *even if* you discard the reality that many embryos used for stem cell research are classified as "medical waste" and otherwise are discarded, the scientific reality of miscarriages and of their frequency at up to 20 percent of all pregnanices, and the scientific reality of other natural ends to pregnancies and their frequencies, and the scientific reality that fetuses physiologically cannot breathe within the womb to begin with, and you look only at the Bible, there still is no grounding for the "life begins at conception" line.

You want to say that Scripture argues that life begins at implanting into the uterus?  Cool beans.  We can have that discussion.  But that also means precluding embryonic stem cells, which means research on them, Scripturally speaking as well as in terms of public policy, is fair game.

So, yes, ALS researchers have used embryonic stem cells.  And I am glad that they do, because with a disease that is both lethal and incurable, we cannot afford to look a proverbial gift horse in the mouth.  If embryonic stem cell research leads us to a cure or treatment for ALS, then to me, that is as pro life as it gets, because we would be literally preserving the lives of the estimated 30,000 Americans living with ALS at any given time, plus potentially untold numbers of people living with it worldwide.

It is not pro life of us to exclude potential cures for this many people like this.  Or, rather, it is not holistically pro life (much in the same way that the objections to birth control are not, because as a matter of public policy, they emphatically are pro life).  It is very myopically pro life.  And being pro life means being pro ALL life: the healthy as well as those stricken with ALS, born as well as the unborn.

I realize that delving into this subject can be (and is) increasingly polarizing for a lot of us: the "when life begins" question directly impacts the national debate we are still having over abortion, which divides people into two starkly opposing camps like few other issues do, even though (full disclosure) it is in fact a topic that has caused me a great deal of wrestling and questioning and struggling throughout my life and my career as a pastor.

But this much I know: trying to dent the raising of tens of millions of dollars for ALS research comes across more as trying to take out the speck in your neighbor's eye while ignoring the plank in your own than it does as a principled stand for the preservation of life.  Because, quite simply, finding that all important cure represents the preservation of life itself.

And we should spur ourselves onward towards that goal.  With vigor.  And with buckets of ice cold water at the ready.

Yours in Christ,

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