Payoff for birth control protested in California

Woman's $200 offer aims to prevent conception of drug-addicted babies

October 21, 1999|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

OAKLAND, Calif. -- It was a small billboard, as billboards go, not even by the road and not even facing the right direction. But the message was loud and clear.

Within minutes after the sign went up Tuesday afternoon inside a fenced yard on the edge of West Oakland, it was angrily torn down. The sign offered drug-addicted women $200 in cash if they practiced birth control.

Barbara Harris, the founder of CRACK, or Children Requiring A Caring Kommunity, is the billboard's sponsor. She says she wants to prevent the birth of drug-addicted babies, who too often end up disabled and unwanted.

But to the two dozen community activists and recovering mothers who showed up at West Grand Avenue and Market Street to sing and shout in protest, the billboard was an affront to poor black women.

Harris, who lives in Orange County, is white, as are her two supporters from Marin County. The neighborhood and the demonstrators were mostly black.

"It's saying, `Neuter poor women,' " said Ethel Long-Scott, 45, head of the Women's Economic Agenda Project, which deals with the politics of race and class.

"You are not wanted," she shouted to Harris and her supporters. "Take your money and get out of Oakland. Take that to the rich neighborhoods."

Harris, who has adopted four black children who were crack babies, said her mission has nothing to do with class or race.

It's about saving children, she said.

Eighty-five women in California, Illinois, Pennsylvania and Michigan have taken her up on the $200 offer, she said. Of those, 36 were white, 34 were black, and 15 were Hispanic.

"The billboard shouldn't offend them," Harris, 47, said. "The need for the billboard should offend them."

Under Harris' program, the women get the $200 for any long-term or permanent birth control. Of the 85 women, 59 got tubal ligations, 12 got Norplant, 10 got Depo-Provera treatments and three received IUDs. Norplant consists of capsules that are surgically inserted under the skin in the upper arm and last about five years.

Depo-Provera provides birth control for three months with one injection.

Many of the protesters worried that women might be so tempted by the $200 offer that they would make decisions they would later regret, especially in the case of tubal ligations, which are difficult to reverse.

"Giving $200 to a poor woman, especially if she's drug-addicted, is a fortune," said Long-Scott, who added that the money might be used to buy more drugs.

"How are you going to give money to a drug addict? You're just giving them a death warrant," said Davette Thomas, 29, of the Women's Economic Agenda Project.

The $200 offer is appearing on billboards in Southern California, Fresno and Sacramento, Calif., Las Vegas, Nev., and Phoenix and Tucson in Arizona.

In none of the other cities was the opposition as strong as it was in West Oakland, Harris said.

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