If you drove by the county coroner’s office recently in Canton, Ohio, you may have noticed a large trailer parked out front with the words “Disaster Response” plastered be- side the Ohio Department of Health logo. Officially, it’s called a “cold storage mass casualty trailer.” It was brought in because the morgue was over- capacity, and the city needed a place to put the dead bodies that continued to pour in.
Down the road in Akron, the state’s department of health had to send another one of their refrigerated trucks to the local morgue, where they too found themselves overcapacity this summer. In the area around Dayton, the coroners have been forced to ask hospitals and even funeral homes to store bodies longer because they were simply filling up too fast.
Though it’s been particularly hard-hit, Ohio isn’t alone in having to deal with the crisis of death caused by opioid addiction and overdoses. The use of prescription drugs is becoming so widespread that according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Alabama, Arkansas, Tennessee and Mississippi reported more opioid prescriptions than they have residents.
Last year, stats concerning the opioid epidemic crossed a grim new line: Overdoses—mostly on opioids—are now the leading cause of death for Americans under the age of 50. And the crisis is only getting worse.
In 1999, fewer than 17,000 Americans died from a drug overdose. Last year, more than 66,000 people in America were killed. For comparison, in 2016, 37,000 Americans died in car accidents.
Almost as many Americans died because of a drug overdose in 2016 alone as the number of Americans killed in the Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan Wars combined.
Last fall, the White House declared the drug epidemic “a public health emergency.” But as the number of over- doses continue to rise—dramatically—every year, for many Christians, this is more than simply an emergency. This is a pro-life issue.
A Massive Scope
For two decades, Dr. Thomas Andrew served as the chief medical examiner of New Hampshire. He understands firsthand just how bad the crisis has become. New Hampshire has more deaths per capita from synthetic opioids like fentanyl than other state in the country.
“When I started in New Hampshire, it would have been ’97, this was a state that had roughly 30 to 40 drug deaths a year,” he explains. “And it reached the point in the early 2000s, about 2004, 2005, where drug deaths passed 100 a year and then 150 a year.”
Jim Quigley is the executive director of Freedom Farm Ministries in North Carolina, a Christian rehab facility that takes a spiritual approach to helping men get clean. He’s observed a change, too.
“Most [of] our men coming here are coming here with opioids being their drug of choice,” he explains. “Anybody who was involved in the prescription pain medication stuff that started 15 years ago, we all saw the writings on the walls, that it was going to transition to heroin like it’s doing right now, as they clamp down on the prescriptions—like they have been and continue to do—all that does is basically open the market up for heroin.”
In those earlier years, Andrew saw the storm on the horizon, and he began to speak out.
“We tried to get the attention of policy-makers and other folks to kind of alert them to this unfolding problem, but it really didn’t gain any traction, I think for a lot of reasons,” he explains, looking back. “For one thing, there was this stigma about substance abuse. They would always default to, ‘Well, this is not really our problem. This is those people.’ And we’re waving our hands and jumping up and down and saying, ‘Those people are we! They are us! They’re our neighbors, they’re our friends.’ And it just didn’t gain any traction with them.”
Andrew observed a very dangerous trend taking hold: Doctors—who were having new drugs pushed to them by profit-driven pharmaceutical companies—began prescribing extremely powerful and addictive opioid painkillers to patients with almost reckless abandon.
“Physicians were sort of the dupes in this process,” he explains. “They were convinced by what was pedaled to them—and by ‘them,’ I mean ‘us’—what was passed off as peer-reviewed research. We really were misled. And this led to opiates being prescribed much, much more frequently and freely than they ever had in the past. People having like a tooth removed and ending up with a 30-day supply of Percocet. I mean, crazy stuff, crazy stuff.”
Earlier this year, Sen. Claire McCaskill released the findings of a report that found that five major pharmaceutical companies paid millions to patient groups to support “amplified messages favorable to increased opioid use.”
A 2017 investigation into lobbying efforts by “Big Pharma” conducted by The Washington Post and 60 Minutes found that the companies spent more than $106 million to lobby Congress in an effort to pass more favorable drug laws.
In other words, drugmakers, who make massive profits off of prescription painkillers, have worked hard to make them so prevalent. As a result, powerful and addictive opioid drugs are no longer just the product of shady drug dealers; they are being prescribed by doctors and can be found in the medicine cabinets in millions of homes around the world.
A Dangerous Cycle
The initial easy access to these kinds of drugs had dark long-term consequences. People would be prescribed a painkiller, like Oxycontin and Percocet, after an injury or surgical procedure. Patients would then often develop addictions and dependencies to them because of how powerful they are and then return to their doctors seeking more.
However, as Andrew explains, “They ended up being dismissed, if you will, by their providers, who may have had a hand in getting them addicted in the first place, ironically.”
Once it was clear that patients had developed dependencies on drugs their doctors had recommended, doctors cut them off.
Now, physically addicted to powerful drugs, many had few other places to turn. Without a prescription, they had to turn to the internet or the streets.
From there, a sad and dangerous cycle has played out in cities, suburbs and rural communities across the country.People have turned to dangerous sources to fulfill their desire for another opioid fix.
But instead of prescription pills, they often receive the even-more dangerous heroin and, more recently, synthetic fentanyl—a drug 15 times more powerful than morphine. And because these drugs are often mixed in unreliable doses—and people who abuse them don’t take the time to calculate proper doses—the results are often fatal, especially when fentanyl is involved.
As Andrew explains, it is the most insidious development yet in the opioid crisis: “It—because of its potency— is killing so many more people so much more rapidly than the prescription drugs or even the heroin did.”
A Pro-Life Cause
In contemporary America, the term “pro-life” is generally associated with an anti-abortion movement. And when it comes to views about abortion, Christians in America overwhelmingly believe that Roe v. Wade should be overturned. According to Pew Research Center, across most major denominations, Christians think abortion should be illegal in almost all cases (for example, 71 percent within the Assemblies of God, 66 percent within the Southern Baptist Convention, 77 percent within the Church of God).
With opposition to abortion often playing out in voting for candidates—at least in part—based on their reproductive stances, and efforts to fight abortion often playing out in courtrooms and legislation, the pro-life movement has taken on a distinctly political direction.
But as the death toll in the opioid epidemic quickly rises to staggering new heights, experts say that fighting it is much more complicated than simply passing legislation. This is partly why the opioid crisis is such a complicated problem, even for pro-life advocates.
“Draconian crackdowns are not going to solve the issue,” Andrew warns. However, the crackdowns have already begun. In March, Attorney General Jeff Sessions said the federal government would support a series of lawsuits filed by states against drug manufacturers. The states are seeking financial reimbursement for the ballooning costs of helping addicted people.
And this spring, President Trump unveiled a plan to fight the crisis. His stated goal is to cut the number of prescription written for opioid painkillers by a third over the course of three years (though he has remained vague on the logistics of the plan).
The president also called for more money to support large public health efforts and treatment programs for those who are already struggling with drug addictions. The new federal budget earmarks nearly $5 billion to combat the crisis.
However, a key part of his plan has drawn concern from some pro-life advo- cates: He wants to execute drug dealers.
At a speech in New Hampshire, he said: “If we don’t get tough on the drug dealers, we are wasting our time. And that toughness includes the death penalty.”
The move has drawn criticism from justice advocates, including the traditionally conservative group, Prison Fellowship, founded by former Nixon adviser and devout Christian, the late Chuck Colson. In a press conference, the group’s current president, James Ackerman, told The Christian Post the president’s plan to kill drug dealers “doesn’t make any sense to me at all, to be perfectly frank.” Dr. Andrew Kolodny, co-director of the Opioid Policy Research Collaborative at Brandeis University, said execution would do nothing to truly combat the issue.
The problem with only seeking legal and legislative avenues, according to Andrew, is that it is simply too narrow. Though he says that some new legislation—like, for instance, a monitoring program for prescriptions— could be helpful, real change will come through a more nuanced approach.
“No complex social problem has one solution,” he says. “Unless you’re a hammer. If you’re a hammer, then everything is a nail. And you’re going to arrest everybody or incarcerate everybody, and after a while, there’s nobody even here to sweep the floor, so that’s probably not the approach to use, exclusively, anyway.”
He believes ending this crisis is going to take time. It’s going to take changing the way the medical world thinks about treating pain.
He says that much hinges on today’s millennial doctors and medical students, and them changing society’s relationships with opioids.
“We didn’t get into this problem in a year or two; it’s going to take a generation to at least reverse that particular trend,” he says. “Even if we start re-educating our student physicians right today, right now, that fix, if you will, is going to take 20, 25 years to take effect.”
Because of that, no single piece of legislation or political movement can assist this pro-life cause. One that he, and so many others, are encouraging churches to get involved with.
A Different Path
This past fall, Andrew made the decision to step away from his role as the chief medical examiner and enrolled in seminary. He still wants to fight the opioid crisis, but now, he’s entering into the ministry, where he can help communities and young people spiritually—while also addressing the public health crisis.
“As I was pondering retirement, I thought, ‘Gee, I’ve still got some gas in the tank here,’” he explains, saying he really wanted to find a way to “still be able to address the public health issue of substance abuse.”
Because a real end to the crisis could still be decades away, Andrew decided to address some of the underlying causes of addiction, instead of just correcting misinformation about the drugs people become addicted to. He hopes more churches will use this method because ultimately, it is the real solution.
“Jesus said, ‘The poor will always be among you.’ Well, the addicted will always be among you, too,” he explains.
It’s a similar approach that Quigley employs at Freedom Farm Ministries. There, recovering addicts are taught spiritual principles, biblical truths about human nature and God’s grace and learn life skills that can keep them on the path of sobriety.
It also means helping family members and other people within church communities to understand the right way to confront and help their loved ones dealing with addiction—even if it feels uncomfortable.
“You need to confront it,” he explains. “Do not let this continue with your knowledge of it—we’re commanded to do things like that.”
For him, the solution to this problem starts on the individual level, not just the legislative one. Part of addressing addiction means understanding how to address it personally—and what responsibility you may play, even if you’re not the one using drugs.
People having like a tooth removed and ending up with a 30-day supply of Percocet. I mean, crazy stuff, crazy stuff.
“You really need to understand what enabling means,” he says. “If you’re financially or in some way contributing to that person being allowed to live that lifestyle, you need to stop. That is the tough love stuff … You make sure you constantly communicate how much you love them; how much you’re praying for them, how much you want to see them succeed.”
Andrew now works with young people to try and teach them principles that he hopes will one day end the trend.
“I do believe that if you can instill values, even if they’re not explicitly religious values, per se, but instill values about honoring life, treating your body and your friend’s body with respect, those kinds of things … are lessons that are learned and remembered for a lifetime,” he says.
And because addiction reaches so deeply into communities, ultimately, he says, churches must also play a major role. Laws and advocacy aren’t enough. A multifaceted approach to service must be undertaken if the Church is truly going to be successful in advancing this pro-life cause.
“It’s a matter of what you’re doing in the community to demonstrate that you are a community of faith and that you care and you take the admonition to love your neighbor seriously,” he says.
“So whether it’s labeled as an opiate outreach or a homeless outreach or a mental health outreach or an outreach to the hungry hardly matters … What matters is that there’s outreach. You’re engaging the community in ways that sitting in church once a week can’t possibly do.”
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.