`Bribes' for drug addicts: surrender by society

July 29, 1999|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON -- Coming soon, perhaps to a birth-control clinic near you: A $200 bribe to get you to use long-term birth control, even sterilization.

Of course, there is a catch. To qualify for this program, you must be a drug addict, either currently or in recovery.

A cash-for-sterilization offer begun by a group called CRACK (Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity) two years ago in Anaheim, Calif., has opened its second office in Chicago.

CRACK also has put up billboards in Florida and Minnesota advertising its toll-free phone number and this straightforward offer: "If you are addicted to drugs, get birth control. Get $200 cash. Stop the cycle of addicted newborns now!"

This sort of thing can catch on. There are many people around who, like CRACK's founder Barbara Harris, want to do something drastic about the thousands of babies born every year to drug-addicted parents.

There is nothing new about states offering birth control to low-income women as part of their health coverage. But just because it is offered does not mean people will take advantage of it, especially when their lives already are disorganized by drug addiction. For them, Ms. Harris merely is adding $200 worth of added inducement.

Her offer is open to men and women, but, interestingly, so far, at least 57 women and no men have taken her up on it, she said.

Moral issue

Of course, many people are just as troubled by the notion of paying potential parents to get themselves sterilized as they are by the crack babies such parents sometimes produce.

"Coercing women into sterilization by exploiting the condition of their addiction is just plain wrong," said one Chicago-area Planned Parenthood official.

Talk radio was even more agitated. The most common word I heard to describe the program on one black-oriented talk radio station in Washington was "genocidal."

"White America realizes they are about to lose their majority," one African-American male observed, implying that conspiratorial efforts to thin out our ranks are on the upswing.

Thank you, Louis Farrakhan.

As an African-American, I have long had my antenna out for conspiracies against the race. Heaven knows that U.S. history is full of them. But my racial antenna aren't twitching much at this CRACK program. Compared with the damage crack cocaine has done disproportionately to black and Latino Americans, Ms. Harris' bribe-for-no-babies plan pales.

Besides, if she is a racist, she's an exceptionally clever one. A white Anaheim PTA parent, Ms. Harris and her African-American husband are raising four black children they adopted as crack-addicted babies from the same mother.

A matter of exploitation

Ms. Harris appears to be just one of many angry Americans who has held trembling drug-addicted babies in her arms and become outraged enough to want to do something about it. Exploiting? If so, crack addiction is worse exploitation. Considering the human misery that birth control avoids in such instances, two hundred bucks sounds like a bargain.

Of course, the drug user might just use the cash bribe to buy more drugs. Ms. Harris realizes that, she said, but adds that at least the drug dealer has a "choice," which is more than crack babies have.

She makes a good point. In fact, the biggest problem I have with Ms. Harris' scheme is not that it does so much, but that it accomplishes so little.

Like community programs to "buy back" handguns, it is too modest to make more than a dent in a very big social problem.

The best you can say is that it gets a message out -- a message that brings public attention back to an issue and a class of people too few of us want to think very much about.

Sadly, programs that bribe drug addicts to sterilize themselves signal a form of social surrender, not unlike needle-exchange programs that provide addicts with free needles to avoid HIV infections. In a society that has been unwilling to pay for adequate drug-treatment programs, it is reasoned, at least we can offer clean needles.

Unfortunately, poor addicts who do seek drug treatment find themselves facing waiting lists several months long, precisely because politicians have been more eager to build jails than drug treatment facilities.

In that sense, Ms. Harris is a modern-day missionary. She may not offer spiritual salvation, but at least she offers money. If government won't spend enough time or money to deal with the roots of our national drug addictions, frustrated citizens such as the Harrises inevitably will come along to deal with its least fortunate end products.

Clarence Page is a syndicated columnist.

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