Sterilising drug addicts

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I once visited a residential unit for drug addicted mothers and their babies. The majority of the mothers were crack users. Some of them seemed emotionally detached from life in general, including from their children. It was pretty obvious raising a child in such circumstances was far from ideal.

I was therefore fascinated to read the article in the Guardian yesterday about an American woman making it her life mission to sterilise drug addicts. Cue liberal shock and horror. Actually, her organisation also pays drug addicts to sign up to long-term contraception programmes but that does not sound as dramatic as sterilisation and so did not receive so much attention.

On first glance Barabara Harris is inevitably going to upset liberal sensibilities. Her language seems to focus heavily on condemning women rather than acknowledging that it takes two to tango when it comes to getting pregnant. Plus the vast majority of people she targets are the poor and desperate and she is not actually doing anything to help them overcome their addictions. There’s no escaping that Harris’ work is judgmental of vulnerable mothers.

However, is it necessarily an anti-women position to acknowledge that women have control over their own bodies and to therefore work to persuade them not to have babies whilst they remain drug addicted? Furthermore, Harris also works on drug addicted men. It could be said that the social backgrounds of those taking up her offer simply reflect the demographics of drug users with the most chaotic lives and that the market is already saturated with various charities and agencies trying (often unsuccessfully) to help people sort out their addictions.

The contraception option, not being finite, is obviously more appealing than sterilisation. But should an individual’s right to parenthood take precedent over an individual’s right not to be born with an addiction to heroin? Without wishing to get too New Labour, the right to becoming a parent is less important than the responsibility of being a good parent.

Addaction has released a statement condemning Harris’ Project Prevention. I don’t find their moral disgust entirely convincing. Sure, contraception is already available to these people, but just as cash incentives have been used to encourage people to quit smoking why not use such incentives to prevent crack addicts giving birth to crack addicted babies whom they have no means of supporting?

Her mission is undoubtedly controversial and morally dubious, but  hopefully Harris will get more attention paid to the children of drug addicts – their rights and their welfare – and that at least is definitely a positive.

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