We'll pay Irish drug addicts to be sterilised
John Meagher talks to a controversial US charity chief who wants to bring her project here
A controversial American charity that pays drug addicts to be sterilised has now set up a London base -- and says that Ireland could be its next target.
"We would be very interested in making this service available in Ireland," says Project Prevention founder Barbara Harris. "Anywhere suffering from the scourge of drug addiction needs a charity like this.
"I am a humanitarian and I think that we must stop babies being born with drug addictions. That is why I advocate long-term contraception or full sterilisation.
"Even if their babies are fortunate enough not to have mental or physical disabilities, they are often placed in the foster-care system and moved from home to home. What makes a woman's right to procreate more important than the right of a child to have a normal life?"
The 57-year-old grandmother from North Carolina established the charity as a result of her personal experience. She fostered, and then adopted, four children born to the same crack-addicted woman in Los Angeles.
Taylor was the second child she took in. "He couldn't keep food down and his eyes looked like they were going to bulge out of his head," she says. "Noise bothered him, light bothered him, he just couldn't sleep.
"My husband and I had to take shifts with him. He would sleep 10 minutes, wake up screaming. Most people wash their hands of drug addicts and they don't see what impact they have on the children they give birth to. I could see it with my own eyes and I thought that something had to be done to stop drug-addicted babies being born."
And so, in 1997, Project Prevention was established. Harris says it has paid money out to 3,371 addicts, or clients as Harris prefers to call them. Almost all are women and roughly a third have been permanently sterilised. Forty seven men have had vasectomies.
To get the money people have to show evidence that they have been arrested on narcotic offences, or provide a doctor's letter confirming they use drugs. Fresh documents are then required to show the medical procedure has actually taken place.
"We pay addicts $300 per annum," Harris says. "We are funded through private donations and we have just launched in the UK thanks to a $20,000 donation. If we can secure funding, I can't see any reason why we would not come to Ireland and, from what I hear, your country needs Project Prevention."
Dr Fiona Weldon is clinical director of the Rutland Centre, a Dublin addictions treatment facility. "This is absolutely horrendous," she says. "Addicts will do anything to get the money for their next fix and the thoughts of paying them to be sterilised is just appalling. People who suffer from addictions are not in the right frame of mind to be making decisions of this magnitude.
"While the people behind the scheme may be well intentioned, they are misguided and I think they could be leaving themselves open to litigation in the future. Imagine a woman who chooses to have full sterilisation and years later gets clean and realises she cannot have children. It hardly bears thinking about."
Tony Geoghegan, CEO of drug addiction and homeless charity Merchants Quay Ireland, is similarly dismayed.
"I can't imagine any drug treatment centre advocating something like this. Obviously, people with addictions are given contraceptive advice, but to pay them to be sterilised is completely inappropriate and doesn't take into account the fact that many people with addictions can make a full recovery.
"While babies are born with drug addictions, children can be a very positive focus for drug addicts in helping them recover. By removing their ability to have children, a powerful incentive for addicted people to get clean is taken away.
"The most worrying thing about what this organisation is doing is the fact that it is paying addicts to do this. It's a form of coercion, because when people are in the throes of addiction they are unable to make rational decisions. It is exploitative."
Barbara Harris admits that the money she pays is probably spent on drugs. So why not use her resources to lobby for measures to help stop women turning to drugs in the first place -- or better treatment programmes when they do?
"I do a survey on everyone who comes into the programme," she says. "Most of them started using drugs when they were 11 or 12. And all of them have been in and out of drug treatment programmes, in and out, in and out. People tell me that I should be focusing on drug treatment, not birth control, but drug treatment is a gamble that often doesn't work.
"Women go in there, they get off drugs, they go back on drugs but that doesn't keep them from getting pregnant. I am concentrating on women who are addicted to drugs who are getting pregnant over and over again. That is really my focus."
Harris is a persuasive conversationalist, who has become well used to dealing with the US media.
"Look, this is not something we do lightly," she says. "We deal with very desperate people who are at the lowest ebb. They see what their lives have become and they are sound enough of mind to know that they don't want to give birth to babies who are ravaged by drugs.
"I'll do anything I have to do to prevent babies from suffering," she insists. "My heart is with the children. I don't believe that anybody has the right to force their addiction on another human being."
Although few public figures in the US have gone public in their support, Harris claims that several politicians and church leaders have contacted her to offer their endorsement.
"Anybody who supports this," Tony Geoghegan says, " is taking a very simplistic, not to say brutal, response to drug addiction. That's often the case if their only dealings with drug addicts have been negative, if they have been robbed or intimidated by them.
"What they don't see are drug addicts who get clean, people who re-turn to a normal life."
Project Prevention has attracted fierce opposition in the United States. Lobby group National Advocates for Pregnant Women accuse Harris of spreading "dangerous propaganda". They say what she does is social engineering, defining one category of people -- addicts -- as unsuitable to have children.
The scheme has been compared to eugenic sterilisation in the US during the 1930s and the Nazis' programme of eugenics, which led to the extermination of Jews and the murder of many gypsies, the mentally ill, and homosexuals.
"Anybody who compares this humanitarian policy to what went on in Nazi Germany is being ridiculous," she says. "How they could compare saving babies from being born into drug addiction with the crimes that were committed by Hitler is beyond me. I genuinely can't understand why people would consider what we are doing to be controversial. But I know I'm doing the right thing and with donations coming in all the time, I know I have the support of a lot of people out there. I want a better world for all children."
Despite her hard line, Harris says she has sympathy for drug addicts. "If anybody believes that these women having multiple babies that are taken away is a good thing for these women, they are wrong," she says.
"I know of one woman who had 13 children taken into care before she finally got off drugs. But when she became clean she was not given access to her children and she was heartbroken. If people take the time to think carefully about what we are doing and not jump to conclusions, they will see that we have compassion."