Culture At Large

Smart drugs: playing fair or playing God?

Marta Layton

Last month, Will Oremus wrote a piece in Slate about his pill-a-day habit. Oremus, like many Americans, has been diagnosed with attention deficit-hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), which is marked by poor attention span, impulse control and hyperactivity. Many people with ADHD take drugs like Ritalin and Adderall, which manage these symptoms by controlling how many neurotransmitters your body releases into your brain.

But people with ADHD aren't the only folks who benefit from these drugs. “Studies indicate that as many as one in three students on major college campuses have used ADHD medications illicitly, most commonly as a study aid,” Oremus wrote. “The insatiable demand has led to shortages at pharmacies across the country.” Oremus points out that the law treats Adderall use differently depending on whether you have ADHD or not. "For the former, it's therapy,” he wrote. “For the latter, it's felony drug abuse, punishable by a month in jail."

Why the discrepancy? If such “neuro-enhancement” helps people do their work better, what's the harm? Lots of people take medication these days to improve their bodies' functions. Pills can help diabetics absorb sugar and lower cholesterol accounts. They can also cure erectile dysfunction in men and control fertility in women. Hydrogen peroxide can change our hair color.

If such “neuro-enhancement” helps people do their work better, what's the harm?

Where do we draw the line? A few questions to consider.

Is it natural? Christ was a healer, restoring sight, mobility and other unhealthy states to their original condition. In modern times, we naturally approve of things that remove obstacles to good health unless there is a powerful reason not to. Few people object to crutches, glasses and other aids that help the injured body function the way it is designed to. Small wonder, then, that most people approve of insulin, cholesterol medication and the like - they help the sick body work the way it should. Drugs like insulin also help the body function naturally, but not so with steroids and other similar drugs. If steroids and stimulants are good, it has to be for some other reason.

Is it harmful? Paul teaches that our "body is the temple of the holy spirit." We should be careful about putting something in our body that might harm it, even when we're trying to restore our body to natural health. Sometimes the cure really is worse than the disease. Adderall does carry some health risks but, as Oremus pointed out, it is less dangerous (at least when used appropriately) than socially accepted products like alcohol and tobacco. With something like steroids, the health risks are more severe. When deciding whether to consume any product, we should carefully consider how it will affect our body.

Does it puff us up? Writing for Slate about 10 years ago, David Plotz described his experience taking the sleep-disorder drug Modafinil: “I am not exactly wired, but I'm more alert, more focused, more Plotz-like. Today I'm my own Superman." Is this a good goal?

In Genesis 1-2, even God worked for six days at creating the world and then took the seventh day off. He commands us to take periodic breaks as well. None of us are so important that the world can't get by without us. Certainly, we are also called to be good stewards and to develop our talents, but if a healthy person truly can't manage the work without changing his body's chemistry, maybe it's worth asking whether we're trying to do too much.

Topics: Culture At Large, Science & Technology, Science, News & Politics, Education