A tiny baby is born. Far from a perfect bundle of joy he's a sickening sight. Smaller than average and more prone to infection, he constantly cries, jerks and shivers. He can't sleep properly and vomits when he eats. He might never be completely healthy. All this because his mother used drugs while carrying him. Should he have been born at all?
Not according to Barbara Harris, from North Carolina, who founded the controversial US charity Project Prevention. She is in the UK looking for drug addicts who'll agree to have themselves sterilised in return for £200 cash. And just recently, she got her first customer. 'John' from Leeds, said he didn't think he should ever become a father and he'd thought about having a vasectomy anyway. Great, that was an easy 200 quid for him then wasn't it? Cash, he says, he will spend on paying some rent and buying some groceries.
Call me a cynic, but if you hand a drug addict £200 cash, what would you really expect him to spend it on? Surely that money is going to just end up in the pocket of some dealer?
So, is she going about it all wrong? I certainly do not believe that drug addicted parents should be popping out babies who could be permanently damaged from birth, endure a pretty awful upbringing and, statistics tell us, will probably end up in care and maybe become drug abusers themselves. But it is the cash incentive that bothers me. Wave 200 quid under my nose, and I'd think: 'Ooh! New boots! But I'm not swapping my fallopian tubes for it, thanks anyway.' Wave it under the nose of a desperate, vulnerable addict, whose body has come to believe they need a substance like they need oxygen, and you'll probably get a different response.
What about those who opt for sterilisation or vasectomy now – because a free £200 hit is just too good to pass up – but wake up in five years' time, clean, and unable to have kids? Success rates for reversing sterilisation and vasectomy are 50-60 respectively, says the NHS (which does not commonly provide reversals). Some people do recover and go on to have normal lives in loving relationships. Is the possibility of never having children the price they should pay for their addiction now?
Whether you agree with Harris' bribery method or not, you can't argue with the fact it is working; she's already bagged 3,500 'clients' in the USA. And while the incentive makes me feel uncomfortable, it is undeniably the cold hard cash that's bringing them in. According to BBC1's Inside Out programme, which aired in London on Monday [Oct 18], her UK freephone number has already taken more than 100 calls. We know that every addict who signs up here will be doing it purely for the money – if it was morality driving them to a childless future, they would have gone and got the snip for free on the NHS already.
In a country where addiction is treated as a disease, Harris' presence in the UK has not been welcomed by many institutions dealing with the same issues she does. Addaction, the UK's largest drug and alcohol treatment charity, described Project Prevention's practices as as "morally reprehensible and irrelevant." The British Medical Association "does not have a view" on Project Prevention but believes the focus of any consultation for sterilisation or long-term contraception "must be on the overall interests of the patient."
But, you know what? As much as I wrestle with the idea, I can sort of see where she's coming from. Yes, for some people, women especially, becoming pregnant might just be the incentive they need to get clean – but not all. And yes, she is targeting vulnerable people – but they're not more vulnerable than a foetus conceived in a haze of heroin hits. With approximately one million children in the UK living with drug abusing parents, she's trying to put a spanner into the cycle of depravity caused by serious drug abuse, and she's doing it by talking to addicts in a language that, for now, they understand.
By: Pip Jones
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