The opioid crisis is the pro-life issue evangelicals aren’t talking about

August 8, 2017

The opioid crisis is the pro-life issue evangelicals aren’t talking about. A recent New Yorker article chronicled the opioid epidemic in West Virginia, including this alarming story that is now far too common across America:

Michael Barrett and Jenna Mulligan, emergency paramedics in Berkeley County, West Virginia, recently got a call that sent them to the youth softball field in a tiny town called Hedgesville. It was the first practice of the season for the girls’ Little League team…where parents had gathered to watch their daughters bat and field.

Two of the parents were lying on the ground, unconscious, several yards apart. As Barrett later recalled, the couple’s thirteen-year-old daughter was sitting behind a chain-link backstop with her teammates, who were hugging her and comforting her. The couple’s younger children, aged ten and seven, were running back and forth between their parents, screaming, “Wake up! Wake up!” When Barrett and Mulligan knelt down to administer Narcan, a drug that reverses heroin overdoses, some of the other parents got angry….After a few minutes, the couple began to groan as they revived. Adults ushered the younger kids away.

Timely medical treatment saved this couple’s lives, but many Americans are not so fortunate.

Every day 142 people die from drug overdoses in America. The median sized church is just over 75 people. This means that every day the equivalent of the number of people in two average size churches lose their life to drugs; many from opioids. A recent study points out the magnitude of the issue: "America is enduring a death toll equal to September 11th every three weeks." Overdose deaths are up about 19 percent from last year, with nearly 60,000 people dying from overdoses in 2016. To put it in perspective, drug overdoses now kill more people than gun homicides and car crashes combined.

The opioid crisis is a silent epidemic in America that demands further engagement by the church. Opioids include several types of drugs, including prescription pain pills such as morphine and oxycodone. Almost as many people have opioid prescriptions in America (92 million, or 38 percent of the population) as the number of people subscribed to cable and Netflix combined (99 million). Five percent of Americans admit to misusing prescription opioids they’ve acquired through illicit means.

An astounding 1.9 million Americans report having a full-fledged addiction to opioids, an increase of 493 percent since 2010. Heroin now causes 25 percent of all opioid deaths in America, up from eight percent in 2010. The dangerous synthetic opioid Fentanyl, reported to be 50 to 100 times more powerful than heroin, also contributes to a growing number of overdose deaths. About 80 percent of all opioids worldwide are consumed in America, and the U.S. accounts for about 27 percent of the world’s drug overdose deaths, despite having only four percent of the world’s population.

The opioid crisis in America has grown for the past two decades. Many people know someone personally who misuses or is addicted to opioids. One report notes that, since 1999, “the number of American overdose deaths involving opioids quadrupled. From 2000 to 2015, more than 500,000 people died of drug overdoses, and opioids account for the majority of those.”

President Trump today received a briefing from Secretary of Health and Human Services Tom Price based on an interim report from a White House appointed commission that recently called on the president to declare the opioid crisis a “national emergency,” which is rarely declared in situations other than natural disasters. President Trump recognized the magnitude of the crisis by stating, “It is a problem the likes of which we have not seen. We will fight this deadly epidemic and the United States will win.” The administration has sounded the alarm for the country, and it is time for a wake up call for the church.

Despite some examples to the contrary, evangelicals have largely been silent on the growing drug crisis in America. The flagship magazine Christianity Today ran a cover story on an addict’s recovery from opioid addiction in its December 2016 edition, which included practical advice to churches on how to minister to those with addictions. Many churches ministries in the hardest-hit places are serving their communities in remarkable ways. Relevant Magazine published an article connecting the opioid crisis to the pro-life movement. But these articles are exceptions that confirm the reality: evangelicals have ignored the opioid crisis that is swelling around them.

Until evangelicals embrace the opioid epidemic as a pivotal aspect of championing a whole-life pro-life social ethic, the church will continue to overlook the crisis all around it. The Bible calls Christians to embrace a holistic view of life that defends the most vulnerable from conception to resurrection. Ministering in the midst of the opioid crisis is a key area where churches can protect human dignity, by embracing the many ways in which this epidemic is a pro-life issue.

  1. The opioid crisis is a pro-life issue because it affects babies: “From 2003 to 2012, the last year for which statistics are available, the number of babies born dependent on drugs grew nearly fivefold in the United States.” Babies are often separated from their mothers while overcoming withdrawal symptoms, though moms can accelerate the recovery process, and are frequently weaned off their withdrawal symptoms with morphine. Holistic care for the pre-born includes advocacy for those who are victims of unwilling opioid addiction.
  2. The opioid crisis is a pro-life issue because it affects families. The opioid epidemic is straining America’s foster care system. Most states are witnessing rises in their number of foster care children, largely due to family separations that result from drug abuse and addiction. Many children thrust into the foster system due to drug-related family issues require special training for those that care for them, which means states have a shortage of approved foster families. If evangelicals truly want to be pro-family, then they must not only care for the orphans in their midst but the underlying drug epidemic that is causing a major portion of it.
  3. The opioid crisis is a pro-life issue because it affects communities. Widespread drug problems undermine the flourishing of communities, by disrupting work patterns and endangering the people in the region. A close friend hails from Johnson County in Kentucky, which has an overdose rate of 46.3/100,000 people; three times the national average of 16.3/100,000. Every time he goes home, he sees the devastating effects on work in his community, including soaring unemployment and rising numbers collecting disability checks. In some towns, employers cannot fill available jobs because, in some cases, nearly 50 percent of applicants fail drug tests. If pro-life Christians want to promote the dignity of work and the flourishing of communities, they must care about the opioid crisis.

How can evangelicals be holistically pro-life if we don’t engage this opioid crisis? The drug epidemic in America is ravaging local regions in ways that affect babies, families, and communities. A whole-life, pro-life perspective must include concern for this crisis. The presidential administration and the media have issued a wake up call to the country, and evangelical churches must equip their people for compassionate ministry to those devastated by the opioid crisis in America.

Phillip Bethancourt

Phillip Bethancourt is Senior Pastor of Central Church in College Station, Texas. Before he was called to pastor Central, he served as the Executive Vice President of the ERLC team. He completed an MDiv and PhD in Systematic Theology at Southern after attending Texas A&M University. Phillip and his wife, Cami, have been married since 2005, … Read More

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24