"Don't let your pregnancy ruin your drug habit," reads a flyer slogan. Another one says, "She has her daddy's eyes…and her mommy's heroin addiction." A third slogan reads, "Get birth control, get ca$h." These posters have shown up nationwide at homeless shelters, methadone clinics, near needle exchanges, and even at AA and NA meeting rooms.
According to The Fix, Barbara Harris of Project Prevention thinks addicts should be sterilized, and for years she has been paying poor, addicted women not to procreate. Project Prevention, formerly called Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity (CRACK), is a controversial nonprofit that pays drug addicts $300 to either undergo sterilization or use a long-term, "no responsibility needed" method of birth control.
In 2010, Barbara Harris told Time magazine, "What makes a woman's right to procreate more important than the right of a child to have a normal life?" Her mission in life is to zero out the number of births to parents who abuse illegal drugs, particularly crack cocaine. Barbara said, "Even if these babies are fortunate enough not to have mental or physical disabilities, they're placed in the foster-care system and moved from home to home."
The opposition argues that this campaign deprives poor, addicted women of reproductive choice, even as it feeds their drug habit. Some even say that Project Prevention should be illegal because the financial initiative is "tantamount to giving addicts money to buy drugs." Others say that if addicted women are not responsible enough to have a baby, then they are not responsible enough to give informed consent to have a serious medical procedure in exchange for drug money.
Barbara Harris is a California foster mother, who started the program in 1997, after a failed effort to get the Prenatal Neglect Act through the California state legislature. This bill would have made it illegal for a pregnant woman to use drugs. Alabama actually has a law that is very similar to this, in which they often arrest women who have just given birth and test positive for drugs.
Barbara Harris began this campaign for a less punitive, more final solution to the problem of drug-addicted women having children, as she decided to pay hem not to procreate. Project Prevention is based in North Carolina, but targets the country's major cities, especially poor, minority communities that are often considered drug areas. (I have to admit, I have seen these billboards in many of the neighborhoods in New Orleans.)
Originally, Barbara offered addicts $300 for sterilization and $200 for birth control, but the opposition claimed that the higher financial incentive for sterilization caused women to make an irreversible decision about reproduction. The vast majority of these birth-control procedures are actually done on government money, via Medicaid. After the procedure, women send the medical paperwork and additional paperwork (usually arrest records) to prove they are addicts to Project Prevention to receive their checks.
Project Prevention has paid a total of 4,077 people to get tubal ligation, or an IUD, implanon, (hormonal contraceptive that is implanted in a woman's arm), or Depro-Provera (an injection that lasts three months), or a vasectomy for men. The goal of Project Prevention is to "save our welfare system and the world from the exorbitant cost to the taxpayer for each drug-addicted birth."
Barbara typically categorizes her target population not as drug addicted women, but more as "breeding machines." She told The Fix, "I became more angry with the system that allows these drug-addicted women to drop babies off yearly at the hospital with no consequences. If there's a scale, and it's between her never having any more babies and her having five more babies who may be damaged, then what's more important? For me, it's the children. And if she can't have any more children, then that's just the consequences of her actions, like getting AIDS or something."
Doctors are not supposed to give birth-control procedures to women who haven't already had a child, and many of the women in the program have had three or more children. She told the Telegraph, a British paper, "The last 20 women who underwent sterilization had been pregnant a total of 121 times and had 78 children in foster care."
Barbara also likes to compare this situation to dogs. She said, "We don't allow dogs to breed. We spay them. We neuter them. We try to keep them from having unwanted puppies, and yet these women are literally having litters of children." This and many other statements have lead the opposers of Project Prevention to argue that the entire campaign is racist, targeting crack-cocaine users. Barbara counters this argument by citing the fact that she is white, but her husband is black. They adopted and raised four black children from a crack-addicted mother.
Dr. Peter Beilenson, who was once the Baltimore City Health Commissioner, said, "While it is rather coercive to pay people to do things, I don't have much of a problem with encouraging people to use reversible birth-control at a time when they might not be in possession of their faculties."
Mother Jones magazine wrote, "Rewarding someone for having a surgical procedure violates a basic principle of medical ethics: Health care decisions should be made by patients, without any form of pressure." National Advocates for Pregnant Women (NAPW) told The Fix, "The greatest harm of Project Prevention is that they are a propaganda machine used against pregnant women to take away their civil and human rights." They also argue that this project perpetuates the stigma of the "crack-baby," which has served Project Prevention well in winning funding from high-profile Republican Party extremists.
The use of crack cocaine during pregnancy has been found to increase the risk of miscarriage and low birth weight, but many of the babies make up for the deficits. According to research, "Cocaine exposure in utero has not been demonstrated to affect physical growth. It does not appear to independently affect development scores in the first six years. Findings are mixed regarding motor development, but any effect appears transient and may, in fact, reflect tobacco exposure." Barbara told The Fix that one of her adopted daughters, who was born as a crack-baby, is on the chancellor's list, and "is brilliant." Yet, if her adopted daughter's mother had been part of Barbara's crusade, this brilliant daughter would have never been born.
Opposition to Project Prevention also argue that many other factors can add up to risk the future of these children. Lack of access to medical care, prenatal care, obesity, cigarette smoking, family violence, and other poverty-related stressors can also put these children at risk.
When accused of singling out black women, Barbara retorts, "If you're a drug addict, we're looking for you, and I don't care what color you are, because we don't even know what color your baby will be, because often these babies come out all different colors. They're mixed."
Another argument against Project Prevention is that this program does not help women access drug treatment. To Barbara, the treatment and care of women is incidental, her compassion is exclusively for the unborn. She said dismissively, "A lot of people aren't looking for treatment, and until they are, they're not going to do it."
Another main opposition claims the program ignores the potential of these women to recover from their addiction to become good parents. Barbara retorts, "What if five years down the line they get clean and they want to have children but can't because they were sterilized? Well, to me it's a gamble. What if they didn't get off drugs in five years, and in those five years they had five more babies?" (I remember seeing the billboard for this program many years ago, when it was still called CRACK. I actually did a little research into it, and even know several women who considered the program, mostly for the monetary gain. As a mother, who had her child after I got clean, I am thankful I did not make such a permanent decision when I was in the altered state of mind of a an addict that needs money.)
Pregnancy can be a motivation for women to seek treatment and recover from substance abuse to become good mothers. Fathers also become motivated to stay clean when they have children. (I can think of so many examples of both mothers and fathers that I know, personally, who have been motivated to stay clean because they had children.) Having a child is a serious motivator for many substance abusers, and Project Prevention does not take this into consideration.
Furthermore, the fact that Project Prevention instructs their volunteers to target "AA and NA Meeting Places" suggests that the organization is also interested in sterilizing former and recovering addicts. It also shows that they have no regard for the benefits of recovery.
Project Prevention is well-funded. Barbara claims she has never had to fundraise, instead she receives donations from around the world. Many of her contributors are wealthy, high-profile people.
Project Prevention has recently hired Chris Brand, a British psychologist who was fired from his tenured position at Edinburgh University, to export the project overseas. Brand is a self-proclaimed "race realist," who believes that blacks are inferior to whites, and that "wanton and criminal females" should be sterilized, and that sex with children over 12 should be legal. The organization has had mixed success on the global front, even opening a campaign in Kenya targeting women with HIV.
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- Item Tag: birth control, CRACK, crack babies, Project Prevention, sterilization, sterilizing drug addicts