The other day while I was lolling idly on my sofa reading the supplement magazine that comes with my weekend paper, I came across something that genuinely frightened and appalled me. Now I am, if I'm honest, the sort of person that often tuts at articles in the newspaper - it is a rare day indeed that I find myself short of things to tut at - but it is not often I find an article that makes me balk in quite the way this one did.
The article - written by Jenny Kleeman - was about an American woman named Barbara Harris who runs a charity in the US called Project Prevention. Now Barbara Harris is of the belief that some people shouldn't be allowed to have children and has therefore made it her lifes mission to try to prevent them from doing so. So convinced is she of the rightness of her mission and the efficacy of her methods that she is now intent on exporting Project Prevention to the U.K. In fact she has recently spent time here, trawling our most deprived areas, dropping leaflets, talking to local people and making the most of various media opportunities with a view to spreading the word, managing to bag herself a wealthy British donor in the process.
What Harris does essentially is buy peoples fertility. She pays people to get sterilised. Almost all of the people whom she offers money to in return for their ability to have children are women. Women with drug and alcohol problems. Her website claims that her goal is to "reduce the number of substance exposed births to zero." Harris herself has been directly quoted as saying that she and her charity are "preventing child abuse."
It's an easy throw away comment to make isn't it? 'Some people shouldn't be allowed to have children.' I've heard it said many a time. I've seen it written in the comments sections of other peoples blogs in response to some awful story or another. Hell, I've probably even said it myself without really thinking. But now here we have a woman who has taken that common knee-jerk reaction and is doing her best to put it into practice (or at least to put her own ideas about what it might mean into practice) and the horrifying implications of what the impact might be on real peoples real lives begin to become clear.
Personally I choose to avoid the obvious comparisons with the Nazi eugenics programme that have been made by other critics of Project Prevention. I find them a little bit crass to be honest and I worry that others may find them offensive. I also think that Harris' complete and utter lack of even basic ethics are plain for any thinking person to see and so I will not focus long on those either. Instead what I would like to look at are her beliefs and aims themselves.
Harris believes that if you are an addict then you have no right to become a parent. There seems to be no space in her world view for ideas of redemption and recovery. Becoming a mother is an extremely meaningful occurrence in a womans life and can be the catalyst for all sorts of positive changes in her habits and behaviour. This can be true for any woman (I'm sure we can all think of changes that we might have made in our lifestyles for the sake of our children) but comes all the more sharply into focus when you consider that former addicts will often cite their children as being the main motivating factor in their decision to kick their habits.
Harris believes that she is preventing child abuse, but the deliberate infliction of harm upon children cuts across class and social barriers. Why then is she only concentrating her efforts on the most deprived and run-down areas of Britain and the U.S? Homing in on some of the poorest, most vulnerable and disadvantaged members of our society and coercing them into becoming sterile does nothing to reduce the appalling rates of physical and sexual abuse of our societies children. If a woman gives birth to a baby who is suffering from neo-natal abstinence syndrome, (or who in plain English is going through the symptoms of withdrawal) the harm inflicted on that child is not the result of deliberate violence or malice on the part of the mother, but rather her inability to manage her addiction during pregnancy. It is a terrible thing by anybodies standards, but not the same as deliberate child abuse.
Harris believes that she has the right to decide who is worthy of the gift of parenthood and who is not. She has amassed serious funding and is garnering a degree of credibility amongst some professionals involved in child protection, aswell as a lot of serious opposition. Where will the line be drawn? How about women who are addicted to anti-depressant or anti-anxiety drugs that are legally prescribed by their doctors? How about women who smoke? Or who live below the poverty line and so are unable to provide their children with everything they need? How about women who have mental health problems, or a significant chance of passing on a debilitating and hereditary disease or disability? What about women who have a history of being abused themselves as lots of addicts do? Where will it end?
For those of you who think that Harris may have a point and that she is being unfairly lambasted by a gutless media (and a rather mediocre blogger) I would ask you to consider her next plan for Project Prevention. She intends to go to Haiti and pay women food stamps for their fertility. I quote: "Women in Haiti are having children they can't even feed, so why are they getting pregnant?" She thinks African women who are HIV positive shouldn't be allowed to have children either.
Like I said.... where will it end?