Pubdate: Sun, 5 Apr 2009
Source: Houston Chronicle (TX)
Copyright: 2009 Houston Chronicle Publishing Company Division, Hearst Newspaper
Author: William Martin
Note: Martin is the Harry and Hazel Chavanne Senior Fellow in 
Religion and Public Policy at the James A. Baker III Institute at 
Rice University. For more on this issue, see "Needle Exchange 
Programs: Sending the Right Message," at
Bookmark: (Needle Exchange)


The Texas Legislature is currently considering bills that would allow 
the establishment of programs to enable injecting drug users to 
exchange used syringes for sterile ones, as a proven means of 
reducing the spread of blood-borne diseases. The Senate version of 
the bill has already passed, by a vote of 23-6. An almost identical 
bill is under consideration by the House Public Health Committee, 
where its future is uncertain. Texas is the only state in the Union 
that still prohibits the purchase or possession of syringes for 
purpose of injecting illegal drugs. As the state with the 
fourth-highest HIV/AIDS rate in the nation, this is not a lone star 
of which we can be proud.

Consider the following 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 in lifetime costs for a single case of either 
disease - much of which is covered by taxpayer funds. Between 
2001-2005, Texas Medicaid paid more than $300 million for the 
treatment of HIV/AIDS alone.

. Extensive worldwide and long-term experience with needle-exchange 
programs 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 injecting drug users.

Despite the evidence, many politicians, often reflecting the 
sentiments of their constituents, oppose the establishment or public 
funding of needle-exchange programs. Conservative Christians have 
been among the most resistant to these programs.

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.

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 (author of The Purpose Driven Life) 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.

Needle-exchange programs save money, demonstrate compassion, preserve 
lives, and offer a helping hand to people in desperate need. These 
are criteria for public policy that thoughtful religious people can 
support with a clear conscience.
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