Is the sterilisation of drug addicts an immoral procedure or a laudable measure? Sinead O’Brien and Phillipa White debate the issue
Barbara Harris is an American crusader on a mission to highlight the problem of drug addicts and alcoholics exposing their unborn child to drugs during pregnancy. Her campaign has recently reached the UK, where her presence has caused some controversy, as her policies and ideals are subject to much criticism.
Harris is the founder of a non-profit organisation called Project Prevention. This organisation’s existence in the UK is a contentious issue, because it offers to pay drug addicts £200 to undergo sterilisation procedures, or to commit to long-term birth control. This is in line with Harris’s strong belief that addicts should not have children and she has made the point that the sterilisation, particularly with regard to female addicts, is “about preventing child abuse”.
Those opposed to the objectives of Project Prevention claim that it violates these women’s right to have children. Others argue that the offer of a financial reward is exploitative of those who are vulnerable, and that the remuneration will only be used to feed their habit.
There are doubts as to whether an addict is capable of giving informed consent to the procedure, but Harris states that it is left to a medical professional to judge whether their patient is able to make a rational decision about something as life changing as sterilisation.
Those opposed to the work of Project Prevention have compared it to the eugenics movements of the Third Reich and in the US in the 1920s. They claim that in advocating the sterilisation of drug addicts, Project Prevention aims to eliminate the undesirables in society and is targeting African Americans in particular. This argument is laughable, as Barbara Harris is in fact the only white face in her family. Her husband is African-American and her children are consequently mixed race.
The arguments made against the sterilisation of drug addicts are somewhat superficial, and avoid the pressing issues that Project Prevention is trying to battle. In arguing against the sterilisation of addicts, nobody has come forward with an alternative solution to the problem of children being born with serious withdrawals and addictions to heroin and cocaine.
To date, Project Prevention has paid 3,600 addicts in the US to be sterilised, all of whom have experienced the trauma of having their children taken away from them and realised that they were not responsible enough to be parents.
The unavoidable truth is that addicts are unfit to have children. If they are irresponsible enough to take drugs, one can hardly claim that they are in any position to have children. Pregnancies are an afterthought for addicts, and often come as a result of them soliciting for sex to gather enough money together for their next hit.
The average number of pregnancies had by the women that took advantage of Harris’ s scheme was three, but this is a misleading statistic. When looking at individual cases, the numbers are far more disturbing. One woman who took advantage of the payment had had 21 pregnancies. 16 others had 16 pregnancies. Twelve had been pregnant 15 times. 19 were pregnant 13 times and 401 women had five pregnancies.
Of the last 20 women Project Prevention paid, prior to them undergoing tubal ligation, between them there were 121 pregnancies, 24 abortions, an average of four living children each. In total, 78 of their children remain in foster care and may be reclaimed if their mothers clean up their act. But the prospect of that happening is highly unlikely.
Each year, women in the United States give birth to nearly half a million babies who have been exposed to illicit drugs in utero. The annual medical cost of caring for cocaine-exposed babies across the US has been estimated at $33 million for neonates, and as high as $1.4 billion during the babies’ first year of life.
While it may be unfavourable to put a price on a life, the fact is that many of these babies die prematurely and have the most miserable quality of life. These are babies that never should have been born. But as a result of their parents’ irresponsible behaviour, they enter this world in total anguish and the public incurs great expenditure just to keep these children alive for a few months or a couple of years.
The children who do survive and are handed back to their drug-addicted mothers or
parents, in all likelihood experience serious neglect and maltreatment. They eventually become addicts just like their parents did and the cycle repeats itself.
To take a realistic look at the problem, one will realise that rehabilitation is often only temporary. The sterilisation of drug addicts is a realistic and effective solution to a very serious problem that affects the lives and wellbeing of millions of children.
– Sinead O’Brien
Pull Quotes: Drug addicts are essentially being labelled as hopeless cases
Project Prevention or CRACK (Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity) as it was formerly named, is an American organisation that offers drug addicts money to undergo sterilisation or another method of long-term birth control. The idea behind the initiative is that babies should not be born into family setups where a parent is dependent on drugs during pregnancy, or after. This aim of child protection is honourable, no doubt, but on closer inspection, this organisation is offering society something that is in fact insidious.
Firstly, a person in the midst of a drug addiction is not in the right state of mind to be making life-altering decisions, particularly decisions that are, for the most part, irreversible. $300 is a seductive enough price for their fertility. Persuading people who are at their most vulnerable to do something you want is one thing. Persuading vulnerable people who are under the influence of drugs to give up their ability to have children in exchange for cash, however, is a contemptible act of manipulation.
Secondly, although drug users are present in every class in society, from royalty to the homeless, the simple fact of the matter is that this campaign is directed at the poor. With a cash incentive of $300, or £200, since the inception of Project Prevention UK in June 2010, behind the offer of sterilisation, an unemployed heroin addict is going to be a lot easier to enlist than a middle-class professional cocaine addict.
Indeed, the facts do not belie this: the overwhelming majority of the 3,600 people who were recruited by Project Prevention have been poor, uneducated and mainly African American women from disadvantaged areas in the United States.
What can be drawn from this is that a form of social engineering is being executed. If it is predominantly impoverished African-American female addicts who are being branded as unfit to have children and sought out to undergo sterilisation, and are thus not reproducing themselves, what makes this project different from any other eugenics campaign in the past?
The message that Project Prevention is broadcasting is that drug addicts are not fit to be parents. It is not in dispute that babies who are born to drug-addicted mothers suffer adverse health risks, such as drug addictions, low birth weights and premature births. Furthermore, it is true that some drug addicts who become parents neglect their children. However, to argue that all drug addicts should be denied the right to ever have children is an extreme and deplorable idea. If the welfare of the child and the rights of the unborn are the only priorities in mind, then why not sterilise alcoholics, smokers, gamblers or anyone else who may not be the perfect parental candidate? Indeed, men and women from families with histories of genetic disorders would have to be sterilised as well if one truly wanted to ensure that absolutely no children suffered after birth.
One of the most perturbing aspects of Project Prevention’s campaign is the utter devaluation of the drug addict’s life. Reversing sterilisation is, in most cases, not an option. Reversing a tubal ligation or a vasectomy is only possible in a minority of cases and these surgeries are often not even successful.
Therefore, sterilisation is mostly for life and drug addicts are essentially being labelled as hopeless cases. It implies that addicts are unlikely to ever reform, at least not during their fertile years and become stable enough to raise children and start a family. How can an organisation that advocates so strongly and sincerely for the rights and welfare of children lack any sense of compassion or hope for the addicts they claim to be helping?
When she is not driving around in a motor home bedecked with images of dying children, Barbara Harris, Project Prevention’s founder, is actively recruiting addicts outside family-planning centres, or on the streets of disadvantaged areas across the US and now Britain. “To me, it’s about preventing child abuse,” she insists. As sincere as she may be, it appears that Ms Harris has lost sight of the bigger picture.
If a child grows up surrounded by drug abuse, unemployment and crime and becomes involved in these vices later on in life, few within society are surprised. These people, however, need education and drug therapy, not sterilisation. If you want to stop the cycle of drug addiction being passed from generation to generation and prevent innocent children from suffering, there are other ways of achieving this.
Alas, making one generation of drug addicts infertile so that they cannot produce another generation of neglected children and would-be addicts is not the method of choice for any human being who possesses an ounce of tolerance or integrity. A long-term solution to address the social issues underlying the problem is needed, and not a crash course in Eugenics 101.
– Philippa White