On the ethics and consequences of Project Prevention: When sterilization becomes a treatment option
Although the organization started in 1997, a recent BBC News article and Radio 4 interview have drawn attention to the highly controversial Project Prevention, a US-based non-profit that offers sterilization to drug addicts. In exchange for $300, “clients,” as the organization calls them, “consent” to “long term contraception” or “long term sterilization” in order to prevent them from having children that they are “unable to care for.” According to the “Objective” page of Project Prevention’s website: “The main objective of Project Prevention is to reduce the number of substance exposed births to zero. In doing so, Project Prevention seeks to reduce the burden of this social problem on taxpayers, trim down social worker caseloads, and alleviate from our clients the burden of having children that will potentially be taken away.” Critics, including National Advocates for Pregnant Women, assert that using sterilization as a tool is similar to social engineering due to its privileging of certain populations for child rearing. Other critics feel that drug treatment is more effective. When interviewed by BBC News, Barbara Harris, the founder of the organization, stated, “So people tell me that I should be focusing on drug treatment not birth control but drug treatment is such a gamble, you know? Women go in there, they get off drugs, they go back on drugs but that doesn’t keep them from getting pregnant.” According to the BBC News article, Project Prevention has paid money out to 3,242 “clients,” 1,226 of which were permanently sterilized.
But is drug treatment really more of a “gamble,” as Harris suggests? If the underlying issue is that female drug addicts are reproducing at uncontrollable rates and are unable to take care of their children, wouldn’t drug treatment be more of a stable reaction than sterilization? The ability to reproduce is attached the psyche of a woman (exploitation of that condition is another story), and it would then follow that taking that ability away has distinct consequences. Are these “clients” prepared with information and consent forms? As drug addicts, do they know exactly what they’re signing up for? This question is listed on Project Prevention’s website and they answer in the following way: “If you can not trust someone with their reproductive choices, how can you trust them with a child?” While this statement appears a bit unsympathetic, Barbara Harris’ genuine concern for this troubled population is anything but unsympathetic. During her interview with BBC News, she consistently makes the case for sterilization/long-term contraception as a solution for low-income women – of all races – to exit the cycle of accidental reproduction. However, the question must be asked: Didn’t the US doctors who sterilized black, Hispanic and Native American women think that they were making a positive social contribution? To date, there has been no independent verification of Project Prevention’s statistics or figures on their “clients” and procedures.