Plan advocating sterilization continues to spark criticism, debate, support


POSTED: Monday, March 15, 2010

The one-woman show that is Project Prevention completed a three-day stint in Honolulu last week, generating 37 calls to the toll-free line and debate about Barbara Harris' unconventional approach to stopping substance-exposed births by paying drug addicts and alcoholics $300 to obtain long-term birth control or be sterilized.

Harris said she received supportive e-mails from people in Hawaii offering to help. Among them was a young woman who endured her mother's rampant drug addiction and spent most of her childhood in abusive foster care situations. But some experts in the field of substance abuse, health care and contraception object to Harris' strategy, which finds her distributing information primarily in low-income areas.

“;Their approach to prevention is very crude,”; said Pam Lichty, president of the Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii. “;It perpetuates stereotypes about the kinds of women who use drugs.”; Lichty called the tactic “;superficial.”;

Harris is quick to acknowledge that drug addiction crosses all socioeconomic barriers. “;Obviously, the wealthy addicts don't need our $300,”; she wrote in an e-mail message Saturday after returning to North Carolina. “;Drugs do tend to be in the lower-income neighborhoods, but to assume that all those addicts have always been poor is ignorant!”; Of more than 3,000 clients, she claims to have paid at least two people who once made six-figure incomes before succumbing to drug addiction.

PATH (Perinatal Addiction Treatment of Hawaii) Clinic Executive Director Renee Schuetter said she found the positive in Project Prevention's presence in the islands. Not only did it spark thoughtful discussion in her clinic—in which all of the mothers have struggled with drug addiction at one time or another—but it brought attention to a topic people prefer to ignore.

“;Pregnancy provides an incredible opportunity to provide a woman with the support she needs to stop addiction and be a good parent,”; Schuetter said.

Schuetter, who keeps a large bowl overflowing with condoms next to the clinic's kitchen area, thinks it is essential that women of all socioeconomic groups be able to obtain long-term birth control.

But sterilization is another matter entirely, which tells women “;they can't change and don't have value,”; said Schuetter. “;It doesn't make sense to trample of their rights now in the name of preventing child abuse. It's re-victimizing them,”; she said, because many of them were drug-addicted babies themselves.

“;I think she's well intentioned,”; Schuetter said of Harris. “;I'd just like to widen her vision a little bit and tweak her program so that it builds a stronger and more inclusive community.”;

The state's Quest insurance program covers several types of long-term birth control methods and sterilization, a Kaiser spokesperson said.

But Schuetter noted getting Quest coverage can be a “;nightmare”; for an addicted woman living on the streets. Therefore, contraception is not always as readily available as it should be.

Planned Parenthood of Hawaii is trying to change that. The organization wants women to know that an entire spectrum of health services are available to them, including easily accessible contraception, testing for pregnancy and sexually transmitted diseases, gynecological exams and family planning.

“;We really care for the whole patient in a way that's not judgmental,”; said Katie Reardon, vice president of Government and Public Affairs at Planned Parenthood of Hawaii.

Harris' approach appears to be coercive, noted Reardon. “;We'd hate for people to think that anyone is a throwaway.”;3