Commentary by Susan Brinkmann, OCDS
A controversial program by a non-profit group dedicated to fighting drug addiction is causing outrage by offering cash to drug-addicted women to enable them to either be sterilized or to get long-term birth control.
According to the New York Daily News, Project Prevention, a North Carolina based company founded by a woman after she adopted six infants from a crack-addicted woman, pays drug abusers $300 to get a tubal ligation or vasectomy, or long-term birth control such as an IUD, Implanon or Depro-Provera shots.
The group finds willing takers by advertising in clinics and homeless shelters with posters that say, “Don’t let a pregnancy ruin your drug habit” or “She has her daddy’s eyes . . . and her mommy’s heroin addiction.”
Thus far, they have paid 4,097 people to get sterilized, all but 72 of them female.
The founder of the program, Barbara Harris, says she started the program after she adopted four children from a crack-addicted mother in Los Angeles.
“I witnessed firsthand how these innocent babies suffer after spending months in the womb on a steady diet of crack, alcohol, whatever their [birth mom] decides to try,” she said.
Harris would eventually adopt two more children from the same mother. After the last adoption, she decided to do something about it and started Project Prevention in 1996.
“I think it’s really important for people to understand that the majority of women we sterilize are women who have had multiple children and don’t want anymore,” she told the Daily News. “It’s their decision.”
“And to say, ‘Let’s go ahead and let them keep having babies because one day they might decide to clean up and keep one?’ It’s just not fair,” she said. “And it’s preventable.”
The says the last 20 women she paid to get sterilized had been pregnant 121 times.
“Thirty were either aborted, stillborn or died after being born,” she said. “Seventy-eight are in foster care.”
While Harris’ heart is in the right place, many are outraged by the way she goes about “helping” crack-addicted mothers.
One of them is Betsy Hartmann, director of the Population and Development Program and professor of Development Studies at Massachusetts’ Hampshire College.
“Project Prevention mainly targets women of color,” Hartmann wrote on philanthropist George Soros’ Open Society Foundation’s blog, accusing the program of “thinly disguised” racism.
“Essentially, while it targets specific vulnerable populations, it is trying to build support for eugenic and population control measures,” she added.
Others accuse the group of violating civil and human rights.
“Anything that involves permanent sterilization for money is a bad idea,” said Bioethicist Arthur L. Caplan, who takes over as head of the medical ethics program at New York University in June, to the Daily News.
“The women are too young, too impressionable to make that kind of irreversible choice,” he said. “I think it should be taken off the table completely. The solution to having babies when you’re not ready is not to make more bad decisions.”
He suggested enrolling women in sex education and/or addiction programs as better solutions.
“Pregnancy and addiction are terrible problems,” he said. “But they’re not going to get solved by throwing a Band-Aid of $300 incentives to the poorest women with these problems.”
Even though Harris insists the majority of the women she helps choose long-term birth control rather than sterilization, Caplan still feels the program is “ethically bizarre.”
The whole scenario brings to mind the warnings issued by Pope Paul VI in his landmark encyclical, Humanae Vitae.
“Unless we are willing that the responsibility of procreating life should be left to the arbitrary decision of men, we must accept that there are certain limits, beyond which it is wrong to go, to the power of man over his own body and its natural functions – limits, let it be said which no one, whether as a private individual or as a public authority, can lawfully exceed . . . .”
Evidence of this hubris is everywhere. From biotechnology that has replaced human reproduction with in vitro fertilization, to cloning and creating hybrid organisms in a laboratory.
And to coercing vulnerable individuals into actions that only violate their human dignity all the more.
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