It pays to bribe drug addicts

Offer: A program that gives $200 to substance abusers who submit to birth control is misunderstood and unfairly criticized.

August 01, 1999|By Kathleen Parker

YOU'VE PROBABLY heard about the racist sterilization program that bribes addled drug addicts -- primarily black women -- to submit to birth control in exchange for a free fix.

Well, not quite. Yet one might infer this from a story by the Associated Press that recently appeared in newspapers across the country.

The story told of a privately funded California program "making its way across the country" (like the plague?) that "pays $200 to drug-addicted women to get their tubes tied," drawing "the wrath of critics who call it shortsighted, racist and a source of drug money for users."

Ho-hum. Another day in the life of knee-jerks and half-truths.

Would you like to know what the program really does? Would you like to know why the program is not racist? Would you like to hear why it is less shortsighted than, say, being a crack addict who gets pregnant once a year, dumps a damaged infant on society and walks away?

I know a little about this story and the woman who single-handedly started this program, as I'm one of the original cheerleaders for Barbara Harris -- heroine, angel and founder of C.R.A.C.K. (Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity).

Harris, who has adopted four drug-exposed infants, started CRACK in 1997 in response to a failed system. Noting that crack-addicted women continued to give birth to damaged children -- and that "the system" wasn't doing anything to stop the cycle -- Harris put on her thinking cap.

What would motivate these women to change their behavior? A lecture? A lovely new Aprica stroller? A year's supply of diapers? Or, might these drug addicts appreciate a little cash? Bingo.

Harris started offering men and women $200 to seek permanent birth control -- vasectomies for men and a tubal ligation, a Norplant patch, an epidermal patch that prevents pregnancy for up to five years or an intrauterine device (IUD) for women. All voluntary.

Clients, only women so far, collect the money when they present a doctor's letter saying they've received some form of long-term birth control.

"Yes, but (sputter, sputter), Ms. Harris, aren't you in a sense bribing these women to get birth control?"

Absolutely! Talk about genius.

Harris doesn't coerce, she advertises. The women come to her. Since 1997, Harris has paid 57 women, who, combined, had given birth 262 times. That's an average of about five babies each -- babies who, were it not for people such as Harris, might languish in foster care for years, never developing into the bright children most drug-exposed children can become with early intervention, proper care and love.

Thanks to Harris, four such babies are flourishing in her home. All four came from a single mother, who had had eight drug-exposed babies at last count.

Harris has critics. Jesus Christ had critics.

Constance Jackson, president of a health clinic that serves poor patients on Chicago's South Side, wondered in the AP story whether the CRACK program would be popular if most drug-addicted babies were white.

The answer is yes. This isn't about race; it's about children born damaged and hopeless. In fact, of the women treated so far, 25 are white, 22 African-American and 10 Hispanic.

Harris is white, but her four adopted children are black, as is Harris' husband. If Harris is considered racist, we might as well give up.

Meanwhile, until every American adopts an infant born to a drug-addicted mother, I have but two words for Barbara Harris: Thank you.

Which is what the crack addicts say, too.

Kathleen Parker is a columnist for the Orlando Sentinel, in which this article first appeared.

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