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The Sunday Times

October 24th, 2010

Offering an addict money kills free choice, Mama Snipper

It should be self-evident that there are some people who should not have children, at least not at certain stages of their lives. Anyone addicted to drugs such as heroin, crack or crystal meth cannot be fit to be a parent and ought not to have children. Not only will such addicts be chaotic, deranged and destructive parents, prone to crime and prostitution. They are also highly likely to poison their babies in the womb, passing on their terrible addictions and causing their children life-long mental and physical disabilities. They will almost certainly condemn their children to the notorious hardships of life in so-called “care”, being sent from one foster home to another.

But it is even more self-evident that nobody should forcibly stop anyone having children. That way totalitarianism; that way eugenics; that way horror.

However, there is one rather tubby, complacently self-confident American woman who thinks she has found a way between this rock and that hard place. Barbara Harris offers drug addicts money to have long-term contraception or to be sterilised, to stop them having babies. Her bribe is currently $300, or about £190. Having started a charity called Project Prevention in the US to do this work, she came to Britain last week to launch it here. One heroin addict from Leicester has already taken the money and had a vasectomy on the NHS.

Major players in the addiction world have been quick to condemn Barbara Harris. Simon Antrobus of Addaction said that Project Prevention exploited very vulnerable people… at probably the lowest point in their lives. Martin Barnes of DrugScope called it “exploitative, ethnically dubious and morally questionable”. He demanded to know who “would be targeted next — smokers, the poor or the mentally ill”. Professor Martin Prince of the Institute of Psychiatry was so outraged that he called on the home secretary to ban Harris from entering the country again.

Civil rights organisations, liberal doctors and men and women of the cloth came forward to protest against the “stereotyping” and “stigmatisation” of addicts, and the assault on their rights. Some critics have even argued that an addict’s rush for temporary or permanent sterilisation would put an unfair burden on the NHS, as if the cost of adult and baby drug addicts and disabled children were not already an extreme demand on NHS resources. And the blogosphere was alive with indignation. The word “sterilisation” is enough to deprive people of all their powers of ratiocination.

I admit that there’s something about Harris that makes me uneasy. There’s something of the American mama grizzly about her; she has said nasty things about spaying bitches that have unwanted litters. But Harris’s own experience and what must truly be generosity ought to settle that unease in part: she’s a woman who had six children herself with her husband, Smitty, and then went on to adopt four others, all born to the same drug-addicted mother.

One of those children has written a public letter about her story: “My name is Destiny Harris and I am 20 years old. I tested positive for crack, PCP and heroin when I was adopted at 8 months old by Barbara and Smitty Harris! When I was tested at the age of one, they told my mother that I would always be delayed because of my prenatal neglect. It turns out that the real neglect occurred in foster care for 8 months after birth.” Destiny and her siblings were lucky; and, as her adoptive mother says: “I don’t believe anybody has the right to force their addiction on another human being.”

Many people in this country do, in effect, promote such a right — and it may be that Harris is right in her belief that large numbers do not understand the implications of doing so. Babies with mothers addicted to the worst drugs (including serious alcohol addiction) are likely to be born with brain damage, learning disabilities, facial and skeletal deformities and other handicaps. Many such babies are born both in the US and here to women who get pregnant every year and give birth again and again to babies whose destiny is grim. And while early adoption would be the best option, there are few people who want to take on such damaged babies or, in the UK, get the chance to adopt babies of a different colour from their own, however damaged.

Drug addiction programmes in this country were already pitifully underfunded, even before the cuts. The NHS refused recently to give figures for the cost of treating babies born addicted to drugs, but it is probably several hundreds of pounds a day for each child. And these are children who are very often nothing but a nuisance for an addict who wants to feed a habit, not a baby.

A British judge, Nicholas Crichton, said last week that over 18 years he had dealt with many, many drug-addicted mothers: “Taking the sixth, seventh or even eighth child away from one mother is quite common. I have even had to take the 14th child of one woman away… A psychiatric report recorded that one mother said every time she has a child forcibly taken away she gets pregnant again to deal with the pain. This is an incredibly complex issue and I am concerned for these vulnerable women. But I am even more concerned for the plight of the children.”

All in all it seems to me that the answer is rather simple. Bribing addicts to avoid having babies is a very good and moral idea. Admittedly, many are not in the best of states to make a good decision, and many will just take the money and spend it on the next fix. But it only goes to show that they should not be having babies, if they cannot see beyond £200 and the next hit. What’s wrong, and profoundly wrong, about Harris’s project is that it includes sterilisation.

Long-term contraception for addicts is good because it’s reversible. If the addict recovers, she can then have babies, which she can with any luck keep. I say “she” because long-term contraception, particularly the coil, is safe and easy for women but there’s no equivalent, yet, for men, despite some promising research.

Sterilisation, however, is something to be avoided, for moral and practical reasons. I don’t think it’s right to assume an addict can give true consent to sterilisation in the face of a bribe. And sterilisation by tying tubes is only about 50%-60% reversible for both sexes. It is clearly wrong to tempt anyone towards that. But it is clearly right to tempt female addicts into long-term contraception. Harris should moderate her message.

minette.marrin@sunday-times.co.uk ‘The kindest cut of all’, News Review, page 5 Gillian Bowditch is away