Project Prevention has come to town, offering Tucson’s addicts and alcoholics $300 if they agree to long-term birth control.
The project, which says it has paid more than 2,800 men and women in the United States to stop making babies, seeks to end what it says is an epidemic of births of sick babies to substance-abusing parents who don’t or can’t care for them.
We’ve got to feel that the hearts of two proponents – North Carolina’s Barbara Harris, Project Prevention’s founder, and Californian Stephanie Cruz, who evangelized for the project this week at the Ronstadt Transit Center – are in the right place.
Between them, the two have adopted a dozen babies born to addicts or alcoholics. They’re walking the walk.
But their talk is ultimately wrongheaded, and its implications are unsettling.
After the project verifies a person is an addict who has received a long-term form of birth control (an intrauterine device or a hormone shot effective for three months), the addict is paid.
That’s OK. Those contraceptive procedures are reversible.
But we have a problem with offering an incentive for tubal ligation – having one’s Fallopian tubes tied. That’s a permanent form of birth control, according to the Mayo Clinic. So are vasectomies – technically, they are reversible, but in reality, they’re very difficult to undo.
Those forms of “birth control” should be called by their proper name: sterilization.
To dangle money in front of desperate substance abusers in exchange for undergoing a permanent, life-altering procedure is wrong. (Project Prevention pays whether or not the addict has kicked the habit.)
It implies that the addict will never get clean. Often that is not the case. Addiction isn’t forever. But sterilization is and could be a decision that spawns lifelong regret among former addicts.
The project also relies on a questionable perception born at the height of the crack epidemic in the 1980s. It was thought that “crack babies” – those exposed to cocaine or other drugs while in the womb – are lost causes, doomed to stunted lives because of the narcotics that wrecked their bodies and brains.
But as early as the 1990s, studies began to show that prenatal exposure to cocaine does not necessarily wreak destruction on the developing fetal brain.
The IQs of crack babies and nonaddicted newborns were compared at age 7; the research found no appreciable differences. The study concluded that other factors – poverty, or being shuffled through the foster-care system – had a far greater impact on a child’s development.
Would it not be better to create programs for expectant, addicted women that combine prenatal care with treatment to kick their habits? Studies have found that pregnancy can be a powerful motivator for women to get and stay sober.
At the heart of Project Prevention’s argument is the premise that it’s better if some children were never born.
It’s true that drug-addicted women are at risk for giving birth to babies who face a range of problems. But that’s also the case of women who smoke during pregnancy. Or of women older than 40. Yet an organized attempt to induce those groups to undergo sterilization would be met with universal outrage.
Project Prevention should be lauded for encouraging access to contraception in Tucson. But it is embarking on a very slippery slope that we find deeply troubling.