Stuff

An Interview with the Woman Who Pays Drug Addicts to Get Sterilized

I talked to Barbara Harris, founder and figurehead of Project Prevention, about her attempts to discourage addicts from having children. I also asked her about her brother-in-law who smokes crack.

Mike Pearl

Mike Pearl

Project Prevention founder Barbara Harris. Screencap via YouTube user lotingwei

In 1989, Barbara Harris founded C.R.A.C.K, or Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity, the program that would eventually be rebranded as Project Prevention, although it was never technically renamed.

What they do at Project Prevention is, according to Harris, "work to get drug addicts and alcoholics on long-term birth control so they don’t conceive while using." How they get them on long-term birth control is, they pay them $300.

Why does the lady give crack to her baby? What a waste of crack.

Since its inception Project Prevention has provided incentives that led to tubal ligations, contraceptive implants, and vasectomies for over 4,000 people in the US and the UK. 

I set out to talk to Barbara about what it's like to pay people to get sterilized, but during our phone call we got into the moral complexities of Project Prevention, and what it's like to be the organization's public face. I also asked her about her brother-in-law who smokes crack.

VICE: A question I'm sure you get asked all the time is, how do you usually respond when somebody calls you a eugenicist or a Nazi? 
Barbara Harris: It doesn’t bother me. People come to us by choice. We don’t force anybody to do anything. And what we’re doing is preventing suffering and damage to innocent children, so it’s nothing compared to any of that. It doesn’t bother me, I’ve been called everything, it doesn’t matter. ‘Cause I know the motives behind what I’m doing and I know what the reasons are.

How is 2014 going for Project Prevention?
Well it’s going very well. In the very beginning when we first started the organization it was kind of taboo to work with us or talk with us, but it’s getting to the point now where people are just fed up.

And even those who oppose what we do, they don’t have a solution, they just want to yell: “You shouldn’t do it.” Just like those who stand out at the abortion clinics saying, “Don’t have an abortion.” If the women try not to have an abortion, would they raise their children? Probably not. 

So, just for the record, you don’t consider yourself to be anti-abortion in any way?
I think that our organization doesn’t take a stand on that one way or another but we’re preventing abortions because the women that come through our program have had numerous abortions. They use abortions for birth control.

Could you tell me about how early coverage overused the word "sterilization"?
It seemed like every time somebody wrote a story, the headline would read, “Organization sterilizing women.” At first it would upset us, then we decided to flip it back on the media. So if we had a press conference or something we knew that they would attend our press conference if we put in the title headline, “Organization that sterilizes drug addicts,” we knew they would go, “Oh my gosh,” and then they would show up to our press conference and then get the details.

So, that word just gets people’s attention and that’s why it’s used. But it’s OK, because if it gets people's attention and they stay focused long enough to read the entire article, and it’s written correctly and tells what we really do, they’ll see that that’s not our mission. 

There’s this term that some people use called trolling. Have you heard of it?
No.

Trolling is basically where you sort of want to stir up controversy so you use whatever language will stir up the most controversy. Is that kind of what this is? 
I guess, yeah, I would guess so because they’re just throwing it out there. Like fishing, they’re just throwing it out there on the end of the line. They know if they use “birth control” as a title they’re not going to get the same attention that they’ll get with the word “sterilization,” so they’re definitely going to use it to their advantage.

You used to be called C.R.A.C.K. Why did you switch over to Project Prevention?
The legal name of the organization is still [C.R.A.C.K], we just use Project Prevention because it was one less thing we had to listen to that took away from the importance of what we were doing. We’re spending so much time explaining the name of the organization, explaining things that really aren’t important

When I came up with the name of the organization I basically just sat down and took the drug that my children were born addicted to and tried to come up with an acronym for it. It was really that simple. You know, it wasn’t so that people would think of black women. I’ve been accused of naming it that so people would think of black people when they hear the name. I tell people, “You give me way too much credit,” it definitely wasn’t that involved. It was as simple as me coming up with words that went with the word crack.

Before you founded the organization, I heard there was an effort on your part to change the politics surrounding pregnancy and addiction in California.
It was Assembly Bill 2614, so I don’t know whether you can go back and find those things or not, but what happened was a senator in Ohio had contacted me and told me that he was trying to pass the bill that would have made it so that women had to use long-term birth control if they had babies. So I found somebody in California who was willing to write a bill as well, but once they got ahold of the bill they changed it and made it to something that wasn’t what I agreed with anymore, because they wanted to make women go to jail if they didn’t get birth control.

Have you ever heard of SB1391 in Tennessee? (I'm referring to a proposed Tennessee law that would impose criminal penalties on mothers of newborns who have been exposed to addictive, illegal, or prescription drugs in utero.)
Somebody sent me this, just within the last month, right?

Yeah this is new.
I think I put it on the Project Prevention Facebook page. I’m pretty sure.

It kind of sounds like the California thing that you were sort of opposed to.
Yeah, that’s not a good idea. Because, like I said, the women are going to stop going to the hospital. If you know you’re going to be arrested when you go to the hospital, are you going to show up? There’s better ways to work it out.

Does your brother-in-law still live on Skid Row in LA?
Sure does. Yes he does. 

Do you happen to know how he got there?
I don’t know because he’s brilliant. You know what I mean? He is brilliant. He has the potential to make an income higher than anybody you might know. He’s that brilliant. But it seems that ever time he gets to a point in his life where he gets up that way, he just self-destructs. So I don’t know. He’s been there so long now that I don’t think he’ll ever come out of it, he’ll be there the rest of his life because it’s been probably over 20 years.

Does he use heroin? Crack?
I think he’s on crack.

That’s really unfortunate. I’m sorry to hear that he still lives there.
Yeah, it is sad.

Recently there’s been this story floating around the internet about the state of California sterilizing 150 female prisoners
So they didn’t know they were or they were misled to where they could undo it? I don’t understand why they would have done it. Did they offer them something? Bribe them? Why did they do it?

I don’t think they bribed them. I think they sort of woke up, having given birth, and now sterilized, and it had to be explained to them later. So I was just asking if you could comment on that.
I don’t agree with what they did, but I understand it, if that makes any sense. I don’t agree because I don’t think that’s OK to do that, but I understand the frustration behind the people who do things like that. We had one girl who came through my program who was going to get a tubal ligation and when she went she found out that it had already been done.

A doctor in LA, I don’t know who it was, she tied her tubes without her knowing it when she delivered her fifth or sixth child. And I understand that. That’s wrong and you can’t do it, but I understand the frustration of these doctors. You know what I mean? 

What did she do next?
I have no idea; I just know she was mad. I don’t know if she was mostly mad because she wasn’t going to get money from us or, I don’t really know. I don’t know what happened, I didn’t stay in touch with her, but I just know that happened. So I doubt she did anything. I don’t know.

What a drag! So you weren’t able to send her a check?
No, she had already been sterilized.

My thinking is that [the doctors are] probably thinking that she’ll never know. You know what I mean? I don’t know, maybe they’re writing them off as a lost cause figuring they’re never going to get off drugs, so they’ll never really know that they got sterilized, they just won’t get pregnant anymore. So, I don’t know how to get inside somebody else’s head, but I understand the frustration, I do.

I totally get it. which is why I do what I do. But I don’t make anybody do what they don’t want to. That’s the difference. I offer them money, yes, because money get’s everybody’s attention. Everybody’s motivated by money. The money gets their attention and keeps them focused long enough to follow through and do what they know they need to do anyway. So it’s basically keeping them focused long enough to do the responsible thing.

Do you consider it a bribe? Would you use that word?
Some people call what we do a bribe. It doesn’t matter to me what people call it. The word doesn’t really matter. The bottom line is that what we’re doing is working. So the bottom line is that we’re going to bribe, we’re going to, whatever you want, the bottom line is that we’re going to get people who are using drugs and alcohol on a daily basis to not conceive a child that’s going to end up most likely in foster care, damaged. I mean we’re going to prevent that. So that’s more important than the word bribe. 

If we bribed known people with DWIs to not get behind the wheel of their cars while intoxicated no one would have a problem with it. These women have innocent victims as well. I could have used many words referring to why the women in jail would have agreed to being sterilized that's just the one that came out. We offer incentives to the addicts we pay, and I could have asked if the jail offered incentives. My point is I can only hope that you don't use a word to take the importance away from what we do. 

I just don't understand why the media can't just focus on the problem and the solution. Why is it always necessary to try to make me look bad in any way possible?

You have a simple answer to a complicated problem, and you present it with a lot of certainty. I think the certainty that you project is why reporters like me keep wanting to talk to you.
I agree that we aren't solving every problem, but we are however solving our one piece of this problem. I think the reason our donors feel good donating to us is because we actually stop a problem unlike most non-profits that fund ongoing problems.

I realize that you have to play devil's advocate, and write for those who disagree with our work, but like I told you those speaking the loudest against us and for the addicts right to continue having children aren't willing to adopt them. If you're not part of the solution you're part of the problem.

Please note: Portions of this interview were from an email exchange, not the original phone call.

Follow Mike Pearl on Twitter

More VICE
Vice Channels