Voluntary sterilization can serve good purpose


POSTED: Wednesday, March 10, 2010

A controversial program that has drawn outrage for paying drug addicts and alcoholics to get sterilized or be put on long-term birth control brings its activity to Honolulu this week. Critics have called it unethical to bribe women to make an irreversible decision, but it has been worthwhile in preventing the birth of children with drug-created problems to parents unable to deal with them.

Project Prevention, originally named Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity, or Crack, will complete its distribution of fliers in Honolulu tomorrow, offering what would be out-of-bounds if offered by government agencies. Barbara Harris, who founded and now is executive director of the project, aims to keep medical disabilities and emotional problems from being passed to the next generation.

Harris' unvarnished candor has created much of the strong reaction.

“;We don't allow dogs to breed,”; she told the British edition of Marie Claire magazine in 1998. “;We spay them. We neuter them. We try to keep them from having unwanted children, and yet these women are literally having litters of children.”;

Her critics, led by National Advocates for Pregnant Women, were quick to respond, comparing the statement to that of Nazis who “;said if you just sterilized the sick people and Jews you would improve the economy.”;

The main difference, of course, is that the women signing up for Project Prevention do so voluntarily.

Critics respond further that the project is no more than a bribe to women to make an irreversible decision rather than subject themselves to counseling and drug-addiction treatment. But it is their right to make such a choice.

Harris began the project in 1997 in Orange County, Calif., after she and her husband adopted four children from the same drug-addicted mother. Thirteen years later, her project has paid up to $300 each to more than 3,242 clients, including 29 men, who provided drug arrest records or a doctor's letter confirming they use addictive drugs in return for subjecting themselves to ligations, vasectomies or other long-term birth-prevention devices. They must then document their completion of the medical procedure.

Accusations that the project is racist are unfounded. Of their clients in 39 states, 1,600 are Caucasian, 884 African-Americans, 418 Hispanic and 340 of other ethnicities, far off the general population's race percentages but a more realistic reflection of those troubled with drug addiction and alcoholism.

Assigning such a policy to a government agency could cause concern about its propriety. Harris' relatively small operation serves a good purpose in providing an appropriate alternative in extreme cases.