Article  Human Dignity  Substance Abuse

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

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.

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