Beliefnet
Progressive Revival

William Martin is a Senior Fellow for Religion and Public Policy at the James A. Baker Institute for Public Policy at Rice University

 

First, consider the relevant facts:

 

The sharing of needles by injecting drug users contributes significantly to the spread of blood-borne diseases, most notably HIV/AIDS and hepatitis C.

 

Treatment of these widespread diseases is enormously expensive–more than $300,000 lifetime costs for either disease–much of which is paid from taxpayer funds such as Medicaid.

 

Extensive worldwide and long-term experience with needle-exchange programs, which enable users to obtain a clean syringe in exchange for a used one, has demonstrated conclusively that they reduce the spread of disease without increasing or encouraging drug abuse and, in addition, serve as a bridge to treatment for a substantial proportion of participants.

 

Supported by repeated scientific research, American medical and public health personnel overwhelmingly support making sterile syringes available to IDUs. Despite the evidence, many politicians, often reflecting the sentiments of their constituents, oppose the establishment or public funding of needle-exchange programs.  (For detailed support of these statements, please see “Needle Exchange Programs: Sending the Right Message,” at http://www.bakerinstitute.org/programs/drug-policy.)

 

Though some sincerely question the scientific evidence supporting various forms of needle exchange, the major opposing argument continues to be, “It sends the wrong message.” Before we accept that rationale, we need to think about the message we currently send: “We know a way to dramatically cut your chances of contracting a deadly disease, then spreading it to others, including your unborn children. It would also dramatically cut the amount of money society is going to have to spend on you and those you infect. But because we believe what you are doing is illegal, immoral, and sinful, we are not going to do what we know works. You are social lepers and, as upright, moral, sincerely religious people, we prefer that you and others in your social orbit die.”

 

Less than a decade ago, this was the attitude most churches manifested toward people afflicted with HIV/AIDS. If people were determined to engage in sinful behavior, they should expect to reap the full terrible harvest of their actions. God might be merciful toward sinners, but we were not.

 

And then, in 2002, Franklin Graham hosted Prescription for Hope, a global conference attended by more than 800 Christians from many countries and denominations. PBS Frontline pointed to that gathering as the moment at which Christians got involved in confronting HIV/AIDS. Soon afterward, Rick and Kay Warren launched a major HIV/AIDS initiative. Today, many other churches, large and small, minister to people stricken with this disease. These ministries do not screen the people they serve to make sure they were infected through no fault of their own. They meet them at the point of their need and offer what help they can.

 

Suppose we worked in such a ministry and were confronted by a person who had contracted the virus from a contaminated needle. While we may rightly decry drug addiction and find injecting drug use abhorrent, what defense could we offer if that person said, “You knew that, by using a sterile syringe, I could lessen my chance of getting this disease, and yet you refused to support programs that would make those available to me. What kind of neighbor are you?” How can we justify saying it is permissible, even laudable, to help people after they have contracted HIV/AIDS, but wrong to approve of measures that significantly reduce their chances of contracting that disease? Jesus had nothing to say about needles, but we do know how he treated social outcasts and sinners, and he had a great deal to say about people who let prim concern with their own righteousness interfere with offering needed assistance to those in peril.

 

No responsible person wants to encourage drug abuse. No fiscally prudent person wants to waste money simply to satisfy a sense of righteous indignation. No compassionate person wants to consign people unnecessarily to death or a living hell. Fortunately, providing injecting drug users with access to sterile syringes allows us to be responsible, prudent, and compassionate. These are admirable criteria for public policy that thoughtful religious people can support with a clear conscience.

 

Join the Discussion
comments powered by Disqus