Faith in Focus

Editorial:The Christian and mood altering drugs

There are many complex ethical issues that we often, as Christians, don't take the time out to reflect upon and decide upon. If we are not doing it, who will offer some direction to society? If Christians who have the oracles of God cannot offer guidance, then who can? Dare we leave these thing up to the humanists and atheists, the ungodly media or the ungodly politicians?

One such ethical dilemma is that involving the use of medications that are legitimised by our society.

Legal mood altering drugs

I am thinking of those drugs that target the neurotransmitters in the brain and in particular the one know as serotonin. Scientists have discovered that the levels and function of this natural product in our bodies stand behind depression, obesity, food eating disorders, schizophrenic hallucinations and obsessive compulsive disorders. Obviously these are all serious problems in our society and in particular for the individual concerned. If a pill can be invented that regulates the serotonin to the extent that these disorders are alleviated, surely that must be a good thing.

But there are a number of issues that have to be canvassed before we can conclude this. One of the major concerns that have resulted from these new smart pills have been side effects that can prove dangerous and even fatal.

Redux and fenfluromine which stimulate the nerve cells to produce more serotonin were hailed as the answer to obesity. But it was discovered recently that a side effect of these drugs was serious damage affecting the heart valve. These drugs have been withdrawn, I believe. But redux, before it was even approved in the US, was already known to potentially cause another fatal lung condition. In a recent Time article, a medical expert following the revelations about redux is reported to have said, "Any of us who were pharmacologists knew this was a dirty drug. None of us were surprised." Prozac perhaps the best known antidepressant, which makes serotonin available to the brain for a longer period than normal, also has registered side effects. So one of the problems with these drugs is that we just can't be sure that they are safe over the long haul.

Money, Money, Money

Are these pills churned out and made available because there are caring scientists who want to cure the world's problems or is there another motive. It's very hard not to conclude that a lot of premature releasing of new drugs for widespread use is driven by the need to make money. Naturally a diet pill that will enable people to continue to eat large amounts of fat, and yet remain slim would find a ready market in the affluent West, where we want to eat our cake and have it too. Of course, it can be argued that if there wasn't money to be made then a lot of positive and beneficial health products would never have made it to the light of day. However, as a society we need to ensure that any new drug contains more that just a promised benefit and does not also contain a sting in its tail like redux. The same Time article stated, "So far the tools used to manipulate serotonin in the brain are more like machetes than they are like scalpels- crudely effective, but capable of doing plenty of collateral damage."

Toying with the soul?

But for the Christian, another dilemma presents itself with the use of these smart drugs. Coping with the frustrations of life can cause mild depression in all of us, and extreme depression in some. But does God intend us to fix our negative feelings chemically? Is manipulation of serotonin perhaps even preventing people to see their need of God in their life? Instead of resorting to prayer like the Psalmist when he is feeling depressed, why not just pop another prozac bypassing any spiritual solution or spiritual lesson to be learned for that matter?

It seems to me that there is a tendency among Christians to identify all the activity of the brain with the activity of the soul. Such a view does not take into account the reality that even our brain can suffer the effects of the fall in a physical sense. And surely in the same way that it is legitimate to encase a broken leg with plaster or take an aspirin for pain, we should also be able to adjust, if we have the safe technology, the chemical and electrical abnormalities of the brain.

None of us would suggest that a schizophrenic or an epileptic, for that matter, should not take drugs that alleviate symptoms that have a physiological or even an environmental cause. But like severe depression or severe obesity, these conditions are of a vastly different order than having the blues because you have lost your job, or struggling to overcome your love of bacon butties. It seems to me, that we should distinguish these things. If , as a society we do produce and use drugs that do away with the requirement to show self control and other virtuous qualities, then I suggest we are heading for disaster. To go down such a road is to teach people that they now need not feel anything negative. Starting with a feeling of responsibility toward others, the possibilities are endless and potentially disastrous. There must be room for prohibiting the use of these brain manipulating drugs, which take away our personal responsibility in much the same way that alcohol does for an alcoholic or heroin for a drug addict. Christian doctors have an obvious responsibility here as well as Christian policy makers and preachers.


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Faith in Focus /NZ Reformed Church / / revised November 97 / Copyright 1997