As a therapist I need to accept that I can only help people who want help. I need to try to inspire them to want change, but at a certain point I need to let them be as they choose. I can’t help people unless they’re ready and that often means they need to hit rock bottom. Ultimately, as long as we’re not hurting other people, we need to be allowed to make our own decisions even if they’re not that smart (this, of course, excludes presidents). Because this boundary isn’t specific, there is room for ethical dilemmas. And that’s what I’ve recently encountered. While reading Elton John’s book, Love is the Cure, an excellent book that discusses the HIV epidemic, I was faced with an ethical dilemma that I’m not sure how to answer… but now for a short rant. In his book Elton does a great job balancing terrifying facts and offering vulnerability as he confesses to being lucky that his lifestyle didn’t result in the same fate many of his homosexual friends faced in the eighties and nineties (so far this rant is really positive so a pretty lousy “rant”). While reading/listening to book I found I got really frustrated hearing about all the needless infection and death. I got stuck on this idea of ‘I know how to eliminate the HIV problem in North America’. It’s so simple! Stop having casual sex. It’s not that hard. Since blood transfusions are better regulated and there are meds for moms with HIV to protect their children from getting it, we should have ended HIV twenty years ago in North America. Why is it still a problem? Instead, HIV has cost billions of dollars and continues to rack up billions more. This is money that could be used to help other worthy causes! And why is this happening? Because some people insist on having sex (or sharing needles) with random people they don’t know or where they have been. I don’t eat my favourite dessert if it falls on the floor and it’s all I have because I don’t know what germs are there. How do you do such a personal act like sex with someone you don’t know where they’ve been or what they’ve touched, especially when there’s a risk of HIV? As someone who waited until marriage for sex, a wait that consisted of nine years in a loving relationship and for me to be 35 (yes, I’m aware how uncool this makes me sound), how can people at least not have sex with a stranger? Abstinence until marriage is only for a few of us, but people should at least save sex for being in a committed, long term relationship where they know histories and want a future together. Is it that so hard? HIV would be gone if we simply stopped one night stands. Even if these one night stand consisted of using proper protection HIV in North America would be stopped. It’s all needless suffering. If I had Parkinson’s, MS, or fibromyalgia I would be screaming, “Put all that funding into a cause where we don’t have any way of preventing it! This is unfair!”
Okay, so that’s my rant… and now to address the topic the title of this post is about…
The question this book caused me is the issue about safe injection sites for drug addicts where they can get free needles to prevent them from sharing needles on the streets. This is where I’m torn. One part of me is screaming this is a good idea; we should be taking care of each other because everyone has value. The other part of me is screaming, “But they have chosen this terrible path and we are enabling the behaviour! What about the consequences for bad choices? Why do those who work hard and try to be a good citizen pay the bill to help people throwing away their lives?” On one hand there is the argument that paying money upfront for these drug facilities can help reduce the cost of helping the drug addicts after, which is like Denver where they have found it’s cheaper to put homeless people in apartments than for the cost of the health issues that result from living on the streets. This can also lead to communities being proud they take care of their own. On the other hand, I keep hearing this nagging voice say that this is another example of our culture being afraid of people facing the consequences of their decisions. We coddle people. At some point we need to let people reap what they sow. It’s also further proof that our culture is terrified of death and we should force people to be alive even if it means having a terrible quality of life. But death isn’t the enemy; it’s the result of life. We all die. Sometimes we are greeted by death quicker because of bad life choices, but if we’re scared of death we should be rechecking religion. If people choose to do heroine, which means they are on a path to die earlier than necessary, is it my responsibility to force them to quit or help keep them alive to do it longer? They didn’t get into doing it by mistake; it was a conscious choice. I’m not a god, so is it fair for me to try to impose my expectations of life on them? If I don’t have the control to force them to stop, should I be held financially responsible for them? But at the same time, is it safer for me and my family to have drug users in one spot where they can be semi-monitored? What if a drug addict is given help, which keeps him alive longer, and then he hurts my wife in a desperate attempt for money to buy drugs? Or if I don’t offer help, can I avoid the guilt of knowing I didn’t help people in need? As a guy who’s never had alcohol, I swore I’d never be the friend babysitting drunk people. I wouldn’t hold their hair up or rub their back as they puked, but I’d make sure they were safe. What does safe look like for heroin users? I also can’t escape the idea that Jesus was the first to show love to the poor and needy; would this include drug users? He would help them if they wanted help, but is going to a safe injection site a form of the addict getting help? If we really want to help them, why don’t we subdue them until they can detox? If we know they’re doing it and helping them do it safely, shouldn’t we love them more and force them to stop? I just don’t know the right answer… or am I afraid of what I want the answer to be?
Unfortunately, like in many cases such as these, there is no perfect answer; only opinions. Either way, like all things there is good in both answers. More importantly, there is good in this question of how far do you go to help drug addicts because it can be a great conversation starter as you filter through your own ethical belief and connect with friends discussing what’s the better path.
This week may you enjoy considering the best answer to this ethical dilemma.
Rev Chad David, ChadDavid.ca, Learning to love dumb people