NGO that sterilises drug users

Project Prevention formerly known as Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity (C.R.A.C.K.) has caused a fair deal of controversy since it was conceived by Barbara Harris 16 years ago. The organisation offers a cash incentive (currently $300) for drug addicts to get sterilised or use long-term contraception as well as $50 fee for referring other addicts.  Mrs Harris who herself is a mother of 10 has stated “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.”

The organisation first started out by trying to change public policy in and petitioned the state legislator of California to introduce a law that would punish women that gave birth to drug exposed children. When this law failed to get passed Mrs Harris took matters into her own hands and with money from private donors Project Prevention started offering money to drug users to entice them to receive either long-term contraception or be sterilised to stop the amount of children being born to drug addicted parents.

I think it is important to point out that Mrs Harris is not creating something out of nothing. There is justification for the fact that children are too often born into a world of drug abuse that diminishes their opportunities in life. The ingestion of drugs, legal and illegal, is generally considered to harm unborn babies and Foetal Alcohol Exposure is the leading cause of mental retardation in the western world.

In the 1980s in the United States, newspapers ran with scare stories about “crack babies” – a doomed generation, permanently deformed and already hooked on drugs before they are even born -  presenting it as an epidemic that would fuel the fire of already high levels of crime and poverty in inner city areas predominately populated by African Americans. However, further studies into the issue have lead to the conclusion that although cocaine use in pregnant women is bad for the unborn foetus, the effects of alcohol and cigarettes are more dangerous. These two legal drugs seem to be used much more frequently among pregnant women and studies found that 30% of women in the US used alcohol while pregnant. A lot of the “crack baby” scare was hypothesised; general perceptions were that crack was bad therefore it must have a disastrous effect on the foetus. In fact the projection that crack babies were permanently damaged proved unfounded and researchers following children that were exposed to cocaine in the womb say the long-term effects on their development are relatively small.

The problem with Project Prevention is that it seems to be tackling a very complex issue in a very reactionary way that stigmatises certain communities. Although the organisation offers sterilization and long-term contraceptive services for addicts or non-addicted users of all drugs, the former name of C.R.A.C.K. stereotypes and victimises black-America. The cash incentive, which is actually a relatively small amount, is targeting poor communities. Project Prevention does not seem to be addressing the lack of access that there might be to contraceptive services in deprived areas. Instead they undermine the public health system by offering cash incentives and stigmatising women from these communities by implying that a cash incentive is the only way that they will take responsibility for their own reproductive capabilities.

Although Project Prevention states that it is mainly concerned with drug addicts, the boundaries of who  is eligible to receive treatment are blurred. Non-addicted users are also eligible for treatment,as well as reformed alcoholics and drug users giving out a message that experimentation with drugs will lead to addiction and neglectful parenting.  Some chapters of Project Prevention even advertise their services in Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and one former alcoholic who had not drank in 16 years was told that she was eligible for sterilisation.

Mrs Harris seems to have little regard for the lives  of those unfortunate enough to have fallen into drug addiction; this is highlighted by frequent bestial references, comparing drug addicted women to animals that need to be spayed. As well as advertising campaigns with slogans such as “don’t let pregnancy ruin your drug habit”. Without promoting contraception that prevents HIV/Aids transmission Project Prevention is also ignoring a major issue, the fact that some groups of drug users - like those that inject - are at high risk of HIV/Aids infection.

There seem to be a disproportionate focus on the sterilisation of women without addressing the influence that males might have on an unwanted pregnancy in a drug-dependant relationship. The majority of Project Preventions’s rhetoric is aimed at women and this is shown by the number of people they treat, over 1000 women have been sterilised, while only about 30 men have had vasectomies. Fathers or absent fathers play a significant role in the development of children as well as influencing female drug use and a woman’s decision to use contraception. In the perpetration of sexual abuse, men may cause a pregnancy or may cause emotional trauma that may lead indirectly to drug abuse.

Female drug addicts can also be vulnerable and C.R.A.C.K. seems to have no way of telling if someone has been coerced into being sterilised in order to feed someone else's drug habit. The world of illegal drugs is already heavily involved with people trafficking and prostitution, the offer of an extra cash incentive for referring other addicts is making this already morally questionable service open to exploitation.

There may not be any alternative motive behind Mrs Harris’s mission; however, listening to interviews it becomes clear that her dedication to the cause is fuelled by regret. She admits she neglected her first child and that he would have had a better life had he been adopted. She also seems to have been deeply affected by personal experiences; two members of her husband’s family are drug addicts and she adopted four children from a drug addicted mother. This is reflected in the rhetoric that she uses to promote the organisation's cause, where she frequently highlights cases of women addicted to crack who have had 13 children without putting it into a wider social context. One of the frequent criticisms of Project Prevention is that it is a racist organisation, even though Mrs Harris denies this, citing her ten black children and black husband as proof. However, some of the groups  that fund her organisation are from the far right and have extremist views on race and population control.

The British psychological researcher Chris Brand who was also a researcher for Project Prevention was dismissed from Edinburgh University for stating, "Academic studies and my own experience [as a choir boy occasionally importuned by older men] suggest that non-violent paedophilia with a consenting partner over age 12 does no harm so long as the paedophiles and their partners are of above-average IQ and educational level." In reference to his work with Project Prevention Mr Brand stated that he hoped the program "will bring real advances for the eugenic cause."

Mrs Harris needs to look at the bigger picture. By trying to reach her goal – the misguided attempt to reduce the number of drug and alcohol related pregnancies to zero - she is actually causing more harm than good. She also dehumanises vulnerable people that could actually be helped through improvements in public health and rehabilitation services. Project Prevention is even more dangerous because it enters the realm of eugenic population control and puts a price – a relatively low price – on a female’s right to reproduce.