Barbara Harris believes drug addicts should not have children, and she’s using cash incentives to ensure they never do.
For the last 20 years, Harris has driven across the country in a branded RV advertising her non-profit to drug addicts and alcoholics.
Her mission? To reduce the number of children born addicted to drugs and alcohol.
Her nonprofit, Project Prevention, pays substance abusers up to $300 to get sterilized or put on long term birth control like an implant or IUD. Those who get sterilized receive a lump sum and those who opt for less permanent birth control options get their payments in smaller installments.
To date, Harris’s organization has paid more than 7,000 people, mostly women, to give up their fertility. Project Prevention only pays the addicts and leaves the sterilizations and birth control procedures to doctors.
Harris believes the cash incentive is stopping a major societal problem in its tracks:
“We’re preventing women who are strung out on drugs and alcohol from conceiving a child,” Harris says. “Nobody has a right to force-feed any child drugs and then deliver a child that may die or may have lifelong illnesses.”
Drug and alcohol use during pregnancy can result in a host of medical complications. The use of heroin and narcotic painkillers like OxyContin, Vicodin, or morphine can cause bleeding within the brain (intracranial hemorrhage) and even infant death.
Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) is defined as: “a group of problems that occur in a newborn who was exposed to addictive illegal or prescription drugs while in the mother’s womb,” according to Medscape.
Here are Some Tragic Truths:
- Every 25 minutes, a baby is born suffering from extreme withdrawal symptoms from the heroin, painkillers, or cocaine their mothers continued using throughout pregnancy.
- The numbers of babies born addicted to drugs have quadrupled between 2004 and 2013.
- In 2013, 27 babies out of every 1000 were born dependent on narcotics.
- These babies suffer from withdrawal symptoms like irritability, convulsions, sleep abnormalities and joint stiffness.
- Often, these babies must be sent to intensive care units where doctors help wean them off the drugs.
- It is taking longer to wean addicted babies off drugs such as heroin and mephedrone. On average, babies now spend their first 19 days – up from 13 days – in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit.
- In 2015, the average overall cost of a newborn suffering from NAS was found to be between $159,000 and $238,000, and these numbers are expected to continue to rise.
In terms of alcohol consumption during pregnancy, fetal alcohol syndrome is another tragic outcome. Fetal alcohol syndrome can seriously harm the development of a baby during pregnancy, both mentally and physically. These effects can last throughout a child’s life.
FAS harms a baby in many ways including:
- Birth defects
- Vision or hearing problems
- Low birth weight
- Learning disabilities
- Speech and language delays
- Behavioral problems
- Growth deficiency
Some say Harris’s Organization Raises SERIOUS Ethical Questions
Harris’s mission to reduce these pregnancies seems straightforward. However, many feel her organization raises serious ethical questions. One question posed is whether she is taking advantage of addicts during their most vulnerable time.
A major critic of Project Prevention is Lynn Paltrow, Executive Director of National Advocates for Pregnant Women. She’s been a critic of Harris’s work for over 20 years.
“Barbara Harris greatest impact is in perpetuating really destructive and cruel myths about pregnant women and their children,” Paltrow says.
Paltrow believes Harris’s organization does more harm than good and does not address the underlying problems of poverty, lack of access to healthcare and stress created by racism have on these women. Instead, she feels Harris’s organization does nothing more but promote stigma.
“When you talk to the medical researchers, the great news is that none of the criminalized drugs cause unique permanent terrible damage,” Paltrow says. “Three percent of all women give birth to babies that have what are called serious birth defects. None of that has anything to do with the criminalized drugs.”
Another strong critic featured is Mary Barr, a former addict who believes what Harris is doing is wrong. Barr has two children who were born healthy despite her drug use.
“I have two children who are incredibly healthy, were born healthy, they’re 26 and 25, and they’re very amazingly successful,” she says.
When asked if she would have taken up on Harris’s offer at the height of her addiction, she says she would have.
“I would have taken it because $300 all at once, that means for me, three nights of sleeping indoors,” she says referring to her predicament back then.
Is Project Prevention Denying Addicts a Second Chance?
Despite the controversy, Harris believes what her organization is doing is the right thing for the children. She does not believe she is promoting sterilization. Instead, she says what she offers is a choice.
“We don’t promote sterilization, that’s their choice. They got strung out; they decided they wanted $300 to sterilize themselves, and if it’s a decision they regret, it was a decision they made just like prostituting and ending up with AIDS,” she says.
One of the reasons Harris is so passionate about this is because she adopted and raised four children from the same mother who used drugs throughout her pregnancy. She wants to prevent other children from being born in the same situation.
“I watched how my children suffered and had to withdraw from drugs when they were born so no, I wasn’t thinking about ‘These poor women,’ I was thinking ‘My poor children,’” she says.
“I always say to them if you believe that strongly that these women should keep conceiving children then you should step up and adopt the next one born, but most of the people who have a problem with what we’re doing would never consider adopting one of these children, so if you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem,” she concludes
Overall, like most harm reduction programs, this solution is controversial. There are many addicts who have recovered and gone on to have and raise children. Sadly, there are children born every day addicted to drugs and alcohol, and the consequences are real. Harris’s organization receives over $500,000 in funding every year. Clearly, there are many on her side when it comes to providing this option.
What are your thoughts? Does a program like this promote stigma or offer a solution? Either way, please do not continue to let your addiction take over your life. You deserve the opportunity to live a healthy and satisfying life. If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or mental illness, please call now 1-800-777-9588.