The Ice Bucket Challenge: A Moral Dilemma

The concept is simple: dump a bucket of ice-cold water over your head to raise awareness for ALS, a “progressive neurodegenerative disease that affects nerve cells in the brain and the spinal cord.” On the surface, it appears harmless; raising more than $15 million to cure a terrible disease seems a distinct moral good. But nothing is ever what it seems.

The ALS Association, which received those aforementioned millions, supports and funds an intrinsic evil: embryonic stem cell research. The “Ice Bucket Challenge” isn’t just saving lives; it could be destroying them.

To understand the moral shortcomings of embryonic stem cell research, one must first define some terms. First and foremost, what is a stem cell?

According to the National Institutes of Health, all stem cells share “three general properties: they are capable of dividing and renewing themselves for long periods; they are unspecialized; and they can give rise to specialized cell types.” As such, they play a critical role in human development:

In the 3- to 5-day-old embryo, called a blastocyst, the inner cells give rise to the entire body of the organism, including all of the many specialized cell types and organs such as the heart, lung, skin, sperm, eggs and other tissues.

Simply put, stem cells are responsible for the production and maintenance of the human body’s major organs. This gives scientists hope. In addition to helping us fight the likes of cancer, which is caused by “abnormal cell division and differentiation,” stem cells could cure a number of other diseases:

Perhaps the most important potential application of human stem cells is the generation of cells and tissues that could be used for cell-based therapies. Today, donated organs and tissues are often used to replace ailing or destroyed tissue, but the need for transplantable tissues and organs far outweighs the available supply. Stem cells, directed to differentiate into specific cell types, offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat diseases including macular degeneration, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis, and rheumatoid arthritis.

Hopefully I haven’t lost you. Long story short, stem cells are incredibly important and it is crucial we learn more about them. Again, all of this seems harmless. Again, nothing is what it seems.

There are two kinds of stem cells I wish to discuss (since they are the most prevalent): embryonic and adult. The biggest difference between the two is their origin.

Embryonic stem cells come from the “inner cell mass” of what scientists call a blastocyst, a “preimplantation embryo of about 150 cells produced by cell division following fertilization.” Per the NIH, “[m]ost embryonic stem cells are derived from embryos that develop from eggs that have been fertilized in vitro — in an in vitro fertilization clinic — and then donated for research purposes with informed consent of the donors. They are not derived from eggs fertilized in a woman’s body.” The removal of these cells necessitates the destruction of the embryo. In contrast, adult stem cells are found in, and derived from, developed human tissues.

Scientists employ both types of stem cells in their research. At this point, the problem with using embryonic stem cells should be clear: their derivation requires the destruction of an embryo, which is undeniably human. When it comes to embryonic stem cell research, then, the question is simple: does the end — curing diseases like cancer, ALS, and diabetes — justify the means — snuffing out human life?

In this case, the end can only justify the means if you consider some humans more equal than others.

Paul Stark clarifies my argument:

The facts of reproduction are straightforward. Upon completion of the fertilization process, sperm and egg have ceased to exist (this is why ‘fertilized egg’ is an inaccurate term); what exists is a single cell with 46 chromosomes (23 from each parent) that is called a zygote. The coming into existence of the zygote is the point of conception — the beginning of the life of a new human organism. The terms zygote, embryo and fetus all refer to developmental stages in the life of a human being.

He then discusses four “features of the unborn” that demonstrate “his or her status as a human being”:

First, the unborn is living. She meets all the biological criteria for life: metabolism, cellular reproduction and reaction to stimuli. Moreover, she is clearly growing, and dead things (of course) don’t grow.


Second, the unborn is human. She possesses a human genetic signature that proves this beyond any doubt. She is also the offspring of human parents, and we know that humans can only beget humans (they cannot beget dogs or cats, for instance)….


Third, the unborn is genetically and functionally distinct from (though dependent on and resting inside of) the pregnant woman. Her growth and maturation is internally directed, and her DNA is unique and different from that of any other cell in the woman’s body. She develops her own arms, legs, brain, central nervous system, etc. To say that a fetus is a part of the pregnant woman’s body is to say that the woman has four arms and four legs, and that about half of pregnant women have penises.


Fourth, the unborn is a whole or complete (though immature) organism. That is, she is not a mere part of another living thing, but is her own organism — an entity whose parts work together in a self-integrated fashion to bring the whole to maturity.

Stark’s claims cut through the propaganda and prove that embryos are human beings at conception. With this in mind, only one question remains: do less-developed human beings deserve the same rights as fully-developed human beings? If you say yes, you assign the same intrinsic value to every person regardless of their physical and mental development. If you say no, you assign different values to different people depending on their level of physical and mental development. In the first case, all human beings are equally valuable, and thus worthy of the same rights. In the second case, different people have different levels of value, and thus do not deserve the same rights. In short, the second case breeds a utilitarian hell, in which fully-developed humans are give premier status and less-developed humans are eliminated and/or oppressed.

So, let us return to my guiding question: in regards to embryonic stem cell research, does the end — curing disease — justify the means — destroying human life? If we accept that all humans deserve the same basic rights — failing to do so will lead us down a terrible, nay, genocidal, path — then we must agree that every man, woman, and child, regardless of development, deserves life. If every human being deserves life, we ought not take it from them, excepting extreme circumstances (i.e. self-defense). As such, this end does not justify its means.

My argument is now complete. Embryonic stem cell research is necessarily evil, as it destroys human life; the ALS Association supports and funds such research; therefore, the ALS Association is involved in unethical science and ought not be supported.

To be clear, stem cell research is not intrinsically bad; in fact, I support increased funding for adult stem cell projects. However, the use of embryonic stem cells must not be perpetuated under any circumstances. If you wish to make a truly positive difference in this field, look to organizations like the John Paul II Medical Research Institute, which respects life in all its forms.

I want to cure ALS just as much as you do; it is a terrible disease that must be defeated. But killing innocent human beings is not the way to do it.