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Meet the Group That Gives Addicts Drug Money to Get Sterilized -- and the Right-Wingers That Fund Them

For years, Project Prevention has been paying poor, addicted women not to procreate -- now, with money from the far right, it's going global.
 
 
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Don't let a pregnancy ruin your drug habit,” the slogan on the fliers reads. Another says, “She has her daddy’s eyes…and her mommy’s heroin addiction.” Then: “Get birth control, get ca$h.” These are posters that show up nationwide in homeless shelters and methadone clinics, in AA and NA meeting rooms and near needle exchange programs, distributed by volunteers for Project Prevention. Formerly called Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity (CRACK), the controversial nonprofit pays drug addicts $300 to either undergo sterilization or use a form of long-term, “no responsibility needed” birth control.

“What makes a woman’s right to procreate more important than the right of a child to have a normal life?” Project Prevention founder Barbara Harris told  Time magazine in 2010. The question is entirely rhetorical: her self-professed mission in life is to zero out the number of births to parents who abuse illegal drugs, particularly crack cocaine. “Even if these babies are fortunate enough not to have mental or physical disabilities, they're placed in the foster-care system and moved from home to home,” she says.

Critics of many stripes have piled on. They argue that Harris' campaign deprives women who are addicted, poor and vulnerable of reproductive choice even as it feeds their drug habit.

Some opponents say that, since the financial incentive is tantamount to giving addicts money to buy drugs, Project Prevention should be illegal.

Others say that if addicted women are viewed as not responsible enough to have a baby, then they should also be viewed as not responsible enough to give informed consent to having a serious medical procedure in exchange for drug money.

Still others say that Harris is stuck in the past by targeting the wrong drugs: these days, more babies are born dependent on Oxy and other legal opiate painkillers than cocaine or heroin, according to a report published just this week in JAMA.

And many opponents say that the payment is a bribe, and some have even called Project Prevention a revival of the eugenics movement.

Harris takes none of these criticisms seriously. The California foster mother, age 59, started the program in 1997, following her failed effort to get the Prenatal Neglect Act through the California state legislature. The bill would have made it a crime for a pregnant woman to use illegal drugs. (Such laws exist in many states: last week's  Sunday New York Times Magazine profiled an Alabama woman named Amanda Kimbrough who is serving 10 years in prison for doing crystal meth while pregnant and giving birth after only 25 weeks to a very underweight baby who died.) Shifting tactics, the homegrown activist then began her campaign for a less punitive, if more final, solution to the “problem” of drug-addicted mothers bringing children into the world: pay them not to procreate.

Though based in North Carolina, Project Prevention mainly targets the nation’s major cities, especially poor and minority communities—“drug areas,” in Harris’s words. In addition to posting fliers, volunteers do ride-alongs with police; a mobile billboard (see the photo onThe Fix  homepage) tours the country.

Harris originally offered addicts $300 for sterilization and only $200 for contraception, but the ensuing bad press—mainly charges that the program was incentivizing addicted women to choose an irreversible decision about reproduction—put an end to that practice. In fact, the vast majority of the birth-control procedures come on the government’s dime, via Medicaid. After the procedures, the women send the medical paperwork and a “paper trail” that proves that they are addicts—“usually arrest records”—to Project Prevention to receive their check. That is the extent of the group’s involvement in the women’s lives.