Is it legal to sterilize addicts?

Project Prevention: Eugenics and Social Engineering?

Three hundred bucks can buy a lot of heroin, which makes Project Prevention's legality questionable.
Three hundred bucks can buy a lot of heroin, which makes Project Prevention's legality questionable.
John Rensten/Photographer's Choice/Getty Images

In the early 20th century, the eugenics movement took root in the U.S. Eugenics is the concept of that a "fitter" human species can be created by removing those with undesirable traits -- like congenital or chronic diseases or low socioeconomic status -- from the gene pool. For several decades, eugenics enjoyed popular support. In fact, from the 1910s to the 1970s, federal and state governments carried out the sterilization of more than 60,000 Americans who suffered from epilepsy, mental illness, blindness or homelessness. The number also included healthy people of color [source: Lombardo].

Some allege that CRACK is simply the newest incarnation of this type of social engineering.

"It's simply a bribe for sterilization," said one Planned Parenthood director in 1999 [source: Belluck]. Indeed, that organization is one of numerous voices that allege Project Prevention's goals are immoral, unethical and possibly illegal -- at least as far as contract law goes.

Legally, the issue is whether a drug-addicted person is legitimately of sound mind and hence in a capacity to make the life-altering decision of sterilization. What's more, the concept of informed consent -- a custom associated with sterilization requires that the patient choose the procedure freely. Critics of Project Prevention argue the $300 cash given to the addicts is decidedly coercive [source: Scully].

The group is also often criticized as unethical for what appears to be a racial bias in Project Prevention. CRACK points out that under 1,000 of their clients have been black, whereas more than 1,800 have been white. However, critics point out that whites make up 79 percent of the U.S. population, while blacks account for just about 13 percent [source: U.S. Census Bureau, Newman]. In terms of hard numbers, the program appears equitably distributed by race, but is skewed disproportionately toward blacks.

Beyond race, the very design of the program is classist by nature. One critic describes CRACK as "a structure in which the economically privileged can and do dictate who will and who won't have children" [source: Scully]. Those in the drug treatment field criticize the narrow focus of the program; addicts aren't offered parenting or drug counseling, only sterilization. What's more, as critics point out, they're likely to use the money to simply buy more drugs.

For her part, Barbara Harris says she doesn't understand the controversy her program generates. She is the adopted mother of four children born to addicted parents. The people eligible to participate in her program have already borne at least one child already. And, ultimately, the decision to be sterilized has been left up to the addicts by the courts.

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  • Health and Human Services. "What is child abuse and neglect?" Child Welfare Information Gateway. 2008.
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