Paying addicts not to have kids is a good thing

November 01, 1999|By George F. Will

CHICAGO -- There is a controversy here because Barbara Harris in Anaheim, Calif., got tired of her telephone ringing. She says, "I just couldn't believe that my phone would ring every year and they would tell me she had had another baby."

In a span of three years, Mrs. Harris, 47, and her husband adopted the four youngest of eight babies born to one drug-addicted woman. Her efforts to prevent the births of drug-addicted babies have provoked charges that she is a genocidal racist. She is an unlikely target: She is white, her husband and the adopted babies are African-American.

From Mrs. Harris' exasperation was born CRACK -- Children Requiring A Caring Kommunity, which pays $200 cash to drug addicts who acquire long-term contraception or get sterilized.

The Chicago CRACK program, founded here by social worker Lyle Keller, has provoked predictable furies from the indignation industry in Chicago's black community. Some critics say the acronym CRACK reinforces negative stereotypes. Another objection is to the location of the two billboards that notify the public of CRACK's offer.

One billboard is in a Hispanic neighborhood within a few blocks of two drug-treatment centers and a 300-bed halfway house for drug addicts. A second, larger billboard is in a black neighborhood. Some people interpret these locations as racial or ethnic insults.

Billboard placement

Is CRACK "targeting people of color"? No, the targets are addicts. Putting billboards in posh suburbs or near lakefront "gold coast" apartments would be a peculiar advertising tactic. There may be addicts in those places, but not addicts to whom $200 means much.

Eight Chicago women -- four black, four white -- have completed Mrs. Keller's program. Five have had tubal ligations, two are using Depo-Provera, one is using Norplant. Those eight women have had a total of 58 pregnancies, 15 abortions and 39 living children, 15 of them born exposed to drugs. Of the 39, 19 are with their mothers, 20 have been adopted or are in foster care.

Nationally, 87 women have fulfilled the CRACK requirements. The 87 have had 628 pregnancies, 234 of which were aborted.

Critics charge that the $200 incentive is "coercive," endangering reproductive rights, particularly because addicts may be too addled by drugs to manage informed consent.

Parental obligations

Mrs. Keller responds: "If the naysayers" -- particularly, he says, Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union -- "are so concerned about the woman's inability to utilize informed consent in choosing long-term birth control, doesn't that call into question that same woman's ability to effectively meet the needs of her newborn baby?"

Furthermore, Planned Parenthood does not test a woman for drug addiction before helping her make a presumably informed decision for abortion.

The controversy about CRACK is a case study in reckless commentary. Typical of assaults on CRACK is a column in the Chicago Defender, an African-American newspaper, saying: "The suspicion is that the CRACK campaign is yet another ploy aimed at reducing the African American population." And Bruce Boyer of Northwestern University Law School, writing in the Chicago Tribune, has raised the specter of eugenics.

He says, irrelevantly, that early in this century some U.S. reformers proposed sterilization of some retarded people, and he notes, ominously, that Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, in a case of the forced sterilization of a retarded woman, said "three generations of imbeciles is enough."

Mr. Boyer adds, "Echoes of Holmes' words reverberate in the arguments of CRACK founder Barbara Harris, who contends that the best solution to curtailing the number of drug-addicted babies is to stop drug-addicted parents from having children in the first place."

It takes willful perversity to hear such "echoes." Protecting the life chances of babies has nothing to do with eugenics, CRACK forces no one to do anything, and Mrs. Harris and Mr. Keller emphatically say their small program is no substitute for large drug-treatment efforts.

It is now operating in Minnesota, Florida, Nevada, Arizona and northern California, but is still a thimble for bailing the ocean of half a million babies born each year after prenatal exposure to drugs.

People concerned about the right of addicted women to inflict their addictions on their babies ignore the baby's right not to have its life blighted by a chemical assault in the womb. Fortunately, Clarence Page, an African-American and a Chicago Tribune columnist, has helped to save this issue from being drowned in diatribe.

He says, "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." Remarkable, is it not, how a single adjective -- "trembling" -- can refute cant.

George F. Will writes a syndicated column.

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