From where Barbara Harris sits, drug addicts give up a lot of things. Procreation should be one of them.
The founder and driving force behind the controversial Project Prevention is on a 5,000-mile road trip to bring the group’s distinctive offer to the nation’s drug users: Get on long-term birth control. Maybe get sterilized. Either way, get $300 from her group.
“People say we don’t have a right to tell them how many children they can have,” Harris said Tuesday as she coaxed the nonprofit group’s lumbering RV through the narrow side streets off Prospect Avenue. “I disagree.”
Drug addicts need treatment and rehabilitation, not sterilization. This program is incredibly coercive — offering drug-addicted women who are desperate for cash $300 to give up their right to have children is unconscionable.
And for many women, it’s an echo of past injustices.
For decades, poor women, mentally ill women, Native American women, Puerto Rican women, black women, disabled women, women of color and other “undesirables” were routinely sterilized without their consent — sometimes those sterilizations were forced, and sometimes they were coerced. Slave women routinely had their children taken away from them. Poor women continue to have their parental rights challenged.
This program is just one more step in a long history of deciding who is “fit” to reproduce. It’s racist. It’s classist. It’s ableist. And it does nothing to actually help women.
CRACK came to New York a few years ago, and there was some righteous outrage. There were also many supporters who subscribed to the idea that drug addiction was a rational reason for coercive sterilization. I often read complaints from younger white middle-class feminists about how their doctors refused to sterilize them, or second-guessed their request to have their tubes tied. But while many people are quick to insist that “desirable” women not be so selfish as to stop their reproductive capabilities, less desirable women are put on the fast track to giving up their right to reproduce:
After Cathy Mayne saw a flyer near her grandson’s elementary school that read, “If you’re addicted to drugs, get birth control — get cash!” she called CRACK on Nicole’s behalf. The organization’s premise is radical, if dizzyingly simple: CRACK gives addicts $200 (they’ll throw in an extra $50 if a participant recommends a friend) and sets up the medical procedures at a public hospital or clinic. All Nicole had to do was sign a release form, and two weeks later she had her tubes tied at a local hospital. She received a check the following month.
That’s it: Sign a form and we’ll give you $200 (plus $50 if you send us someone else!) to permanently disallow you from having children (yes, I know that tubes can somtimes be “untied,” but it’s a costly procedure and certainly not guaranteed to be effective).
Oh, and CRACK also frequents jails. Which seems appropriate, given our supremely fucked criminal justice system — incarcerate people for using drugs, treat them as criminals instead of addicts, give them little or no treatment, and put then back on the streets. Then give them more money for drugs, in exchange for their reproductive capabilities. Think I’m being hyperbolic? Consider:
The organization grew slowly. At first, Harris worked from home and got friends to help her post flyers all over Los Angeles. (One read: “Don’t let getting pregnant get in the way of your drug habit.”)
Naturally, “pro-family” advocates like Dr. Laura Schlessinger were more than happy to contribute thousands of dollars to the program. CRACK is also well-funded by conservative organizations.
These women are between a rock and a hard place. They’re drug addicts, which severely compromises their abilities to reason and make healthy decisions. They physically need their drugs, and when someone dangles $300 in front of them in exchange for a simple surgical procedure, it’s hard to resist. Further, many drug addicts show up at places like CRACK because they want to work through their addictions and they think that, just maybe, this organization will help them. It doesn’t. And the public health system sure doesn’t, either:
Indeed, Medicaid rarely pays for pregnant women to attend inpatient drug treatment programs, and even outpatient resources are hard to come by. Making matters worse, the National Association of Alcoholism and Drug Abuse Counselors says that states, which cough up the lion’s share of drug treatment and prevention money in the United States, have cut treatment money by as much as 30 percent in the last two years.
“Poor women have fewer and fewer options to help them deal with their substance abuse dependencies,” says Gwen Rubenstein, director of policy research for the Legal Action Center, a public interest firm in Washington, which represents individuals with drug and alcohol problems. For this reason, Rubenstein believes that CRACK ‘s money would be better spent developing viable treatment options for the women they serve. Harris has a simple response to that suggestion: “That’s not what we do.”
If she actually wanted to help drug addicts, that’s what she should do.
Medicaid rarely pays for drug treatment. Women who are drug addicts, or who have had past drug addictions, are routinely denied public housing and welfare benefits. They often don’t qualify for healthcare programs, unless they’re pregnant — and then, under the funding requirements, it’s their fetus that qualifies for healthcare, not them. And as the cherry on top, their CRACK-coerced sterilizations are paid for with taxpayer dollars through Medicaid and other federal and state programs.
The Kansas City Star article makes the misleading statement that “As of this week, Project Prevention overall claims to have paid incentives to nearly 1,900 drug abusers — all but a handful of them women, most of them white.” I don’t doubt that most of them are white, given that whites are the racial majority in this country. But the Salon article clears this up:
So far, 907 people have signed on with CRACK. Of those, 329 were permanently sterilized and the rest opted for long-term birth control like Norplant or Depo-Provera. Despite critics’ assertions, the majority of participants have not been racial minorities, although there is a greater percentage of minorities than in the general population: 463 have been white, 392 black, and 52 nonwhite Hispanic.
Eighty percent of people who live in the United States are white. Of the people CRACK “treated” (as of 2003, when the Salon article was published), 51% where white. 12.8% of people in the United States are black or African American. Forty-three percent of people “treated” by CRACK are black or African American.
And I won’t even get into how the “crack baby” scare of the 1980s was largely a racist conservative invention on par with the “welfare queen,” and that subsequent studies have shown that while cocaine may create complications with pregnancy, it’s not quite the causal factor of the underweight, crack-addicted newborn held up by politicians as evidence of the evils of black America. Bigger problems are poverty, lack of healthcare, few resources, and a broken foster care system.
But CRACK isn’t interested in dealing with any of the actual issues that make life much more difficult for drug-addicted women. Harris isn’t interested in helping these women through their addictions. She’s only interested in controlling who reproduces and who doesn’t.
But more troubling, says Wendy Chavkin, a professor of clinical public health and OB-GYN at Columbia University, is that CRACK infringes on a woman’s reproductive autonomy. “Whether or not to have a child is a profoundly important and private decision. CRACK is offering money [for addicts] to go out and get high in exchange for a fundamental human capacity.” Even worse, says Chavkin, it does not offer services that can genuinely change an addict’s life, like drug treatment, housing, or job training.
“But I can’t solve all the problems in the world!” counters Harris, who largely dismisses her opponents as being “blinded by women’s rights issues” at the expense of drug-exposed babies who suffer for no fault of their own. Ninety percent of them, claims Harris, never get rescued from state care by their parents. Truth, though, is that many drug addicts fight to get their kids back only to run up against an unsympathetic system, says Corinne Carey, director of New York’s Harm Reduction Law Project, which represents drug addicts attempting to reclaim their children from foster care. “These women are cut off from public housing and welfare, don’t get the treatment they need, and have to deal with trying to get their child back on top of it all—there are so many obstacles,” says Carey, who adds that untrained case workers misdirect her clients on a routine basis. On top of this, nearly 20 percent of those referred by physicians for substance abuse treatment are denied treatment by insurance companies, according to the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse. Getting pregnant often motivates mothers to change their behavior for the better, says Machelle Allen, an obstetrician who runs a prenatal clinic at Bellevue Hospital for pregnant drug addicts. Allen sees CRACK’s methods as coercive and neglectful of the underlying problem of addiction.
No one expects Harris to “solve all the problems in the world.” But we do expect that, when she takes on a problem, she takes it on responsibly and tries to solve it in a humanitarian way.
Social-service providers have also expressed outrage. “It’s a total exploitation of women who have a substance abuse problem,” says David LaKine of Faith House, a St. Louis facility for children suffering from prenatal drug exposure. “They will take the $200 because they have a disease, and using drugs and being promiscuous are all symptoms of the disease.” Kathryn Icenhower, director of a Los Angeles group that provides services to the homeless, told reporters that she has asked Harris “to please stay away from our clients.” Offering addicts cash, she added, is like telling a homeless person, “I’ll let you come in here and sleep tonight if we sterilize you.”
Harris admits her organization might be fueling the addictions of her clients — but she is not overly concerned about how women spend the cash. “If they choose to use the money to buy drugs, that’s their choice,” she says. “Their babies have no choice. If that sounds cold, that’s too bad.” Before founding CRACK, Harris tried unsuccessfully to convince California legislators to jail mothers of drug-addicted babies unless they agreed to implants or other long-term birth control.
Coercive sterilizations. Jailing pregnant women. This is scary stuff.
And it gets worse. Harris claims that CRACK isn’t about eugenics or race, but check out who her allies are:
Many right-wing donors are also cheering. According to Harris, the organization has banked $320,000, most of it from wealthy conservatives. Dr. Laura Schlessinger, the controversial talk-show host, has contributed $10,000. Richard Mellon Scaife, the Pittsburgh billionaire credited with funding the New Right, has thrown in $75,000 through his Allegheny Foundation. And Jim Woodhill, a Houston venture capitalist and self-proclaimed member of the “Republican Rebel Alliance,” has given $125,000.
Woodhill makes no secret of his desire to bring in new leadership to build a larger, more influential organization. “I’m sure we can get a good executive director whose specialty is fundraising and have her go around and hit up members of the ‘vast right-wing conspiracy,’” he says. “We can raise the money.” Woodhill has hired Chris Brand, a British psychologist, who is working to expand CRACK overseas. Brand, a self-proclaimed “race realist,” claims that blacks are intellectually inferior to whites, and advocates taking a “eugenic” approach to “wanton and criminal females.”
Sounsd like the right guy for the job. And no wonder racists and eugenicists are supporting the organization — Harris herself doesn’t hesitate to compare drug-addicted pregnant women to animals:
The idea that poor, drug-addicted women – most of them living in inner- city neighbourhoods antithetical to the white suburban landscape of Harris’s home in Orange County – were having baby after baby without regard for their own or their children’s well-being became her crusade. “These women literally have litters of children!” she later said in a series of provocative interviews. “They’re not acting any more responsible than a dog on heat.”
Check out all of the above-linked articles if you have time, but if you only read one make sure that it’s the Independent article linked to from Advocates for Pregnant Women, an organization led by Lynn Paltrow, one of my feminist heroes. It does a good job of breaking down a lot of the racist myths around drug addiction:
The notion of “crack babies” has fuelled the US war on drugs ever since the epidemic of cheap, highly addictive cocaine derivatives hit the inner cities as a by-product of the Nicaraguan civil war in the 1980s. (The Contras, backed by the US, financed their insurgency in part by selling drugs to the North American market, and the CIA tended to look the other way.) It’s certainly an emotive idea – thousands of children suffering horrific neurological disorders because of the addiction of their mothers. But it has little or no basis in fact.
The harm that drugs cause during pregnancy is impossible to measure or single out from other factors (poverty, malnutrition, stress, inadequate pre-natal care and so on). Barbara Harris has no way of knowing what exactly caused the screaming fits and other symptoms that beset her adoptive child, and a growing body of scientists is beginning to wonder if the link to crack cocaine is even plausible.
“Crack babies are like Max Headroom and reincarnations of Elvis – a media creation,” the academic specialists John P Morgan and Lynn Zimmer wrote in a widely cited 1997 article, “The Social Pharmacology of Smokeable Cocaine”. “Cocaine does not produce physical dependence, and babies exposed to it prenatally do not exhibit symptoms of drug withdrawal. Other symptoms of drug dependence – such as craving’ and compulsion’ – cannot be detected in babies. In fact, without knowing that cocaine was used by their mothers, clinicians could not distinguish so-called crack-addicted babies from babies born to comparable mothers who had never used cocaine or crack.”
Myth No 2 is that drug addicts are giving birth at abnormally high rates. Although instances of multiple pregnancies can clearly be found, the best research suggests that the average drug user has between two and three children, just like anyone else. The best research also points out that the “average” drug user is not, contrary to media-fuelled conventional wisdom, a poor, under-educated, black inner-city dweller, but more likely a divorced, white high-school graduate struggling to get by with a couple of children in tow.
Barbara Harris insists that she offers her services to anyone, and counts stockbrokers and former teachers among her clients. (“When you’re on drugs, you don’t stay wealthy very long and you don’t stay employed.”) But it appears, from her flyer campaigns and from the statistical breakdowns of her own numbers, that her organisation focuses primarily on the inner city and on ethnic minorities.
And despite Harris’s claims that she can’t possibly be racist because her husband is black, she does have some interesting things to say to Steve Sailer, columnist for the notoriously racist VDARE, when he asks her why CRACK has only sterilized eight men:
Men don’t have many options (just vasectomies), so they don’t follow through. When they hear what they have to do, they go, “Ooh, I’m not doing that.” And in most cases it’s not drug-addicted men who are getting these women pregnant — it’s johns that they prostitute with all day long for $5 a person. One of the women who came through our program had 14 babies. She doesn’t know who the fathers are, and that’s usually the case. A lot of times they don’t even know what race the kids are. How sad is that?
You mean these women might not know if they’re giving birth to a darkie? How tragic.
CRACK is a disgusting, shameful organization. I hope the people of Kansas City drive them out.
- 4parents.gov sucks by Trailer Park Feminist July 13, 2007
- More on the right-wing zealot in charge of reproductive health funding by Jill November 20, 2006
- The brutality of reproductive control by Jill May 22, 2013
- Companies still don’t have to cover contraception by Jill March 17, 2007
- “Progressive” McCain by Jill November 20, 2006