The news of the screws has done a good job of desensitising us to all manner of horrors and shocks we should not be desensitised to. However, sometimes you can still find out about something that pulls you up short.
That was my first reaction to CRACK.
CRACK (Children Requiring A Caring Kommunity) was set up in California in the late 1990’s to “Save our welfare system and the world from the exorbitant cost to the taxpayer for each drug-addicted birth.”
CRACK’s first attempts at saving the world and the taxpayer were, frankly, a bit cracked. They wanted to make it a criminal offence for a drug addict to have children. I would never condone drug use during pregnancy, and the fact that so many babies are born already addicted to the drugs in their mothers’ systems before they were born is truly horrific. But the ramifications for society if a government is given the power to decide who may and who may not have children are terrifying. Not to mention that these laws could realistically only ever be applied to women. Thankfully, no-one jumped on the idea.
So CRACK changed tack and opted for something a little less extreme – but only a little. Since 1997, they have been paying addicts to get themselves sterilised. $200, in cash. They target low-income neighbourhoods, into which they go, spreading messages such as “Don’t let getting pregnant get in the way of your drug habit.”
I could fill books with all the reasons I object to CRACK, and still couldn’t convey or explain the deep sense of unease they give me.
That they exclusively target low-income neighbourhoods is worrying. Neglect happens everywhere, in every community, every social class. But it will always be easier to point the finger at low income communities, and it is much easier to financially manipulate the economically vulnerable who have much fewer options.
And it doesn’t take a brain surgeon to work out that if you give a heroin addict $200 in cash, he or she will spend it on heroin. It’s at best morally dubious to use an addict’s desperation for another hit (or cash as a means to another hit) to manipulate them
into giving up their fertility for life. Addiction can be overcome and sometimes addicts do clean up. In that case, should there be no second chance? Does the fact that someone was once an addict mean that they are forever unworthy to bear children, as CRACK sees it?
But serious drug taking is a danger not only to the addict, but to the whole community. By providing drug addicts with cash, Harris and co are not only endangering the addict’s life; they are endangering and compromising entire communities. You have to question CRACK’s motives. Was this a plan very ill thought-out, or is it more sinister? Is the hope that once you’ve stopped the unmentionables of society from breeding, you give cash in the hope that a few more hits will speed up their demise?
Social problems like drug addiction are deeply complex and are not neatly confined into defined sections of society. I.e. you cannot solve the problems of drug addiction simply by sterilising this generation of addicts and waiting for them to die out.
It’s very hard to like the organisation – especially when its founder, Harris, comes out with lines like “We don’t allow dogs to breed. We neuter them. We try to keep them from having unwanted puppies, and yet these women are literally having litters of children.”
But when you hear of something like this, you have to look at it – and ask, why? What crazy, desperate need was there to give birth to such a desperately crazy idea?
I hope that our first reaction when we read about something that smacks of eugenics as much as this does will always be an extreme discomfort. Of note, CRACK tried to expand into the UK but the General Medical Council refused to allow them to pay for sterilisations. But the situation is not all that clear cut and on reflection, I do think that CRACK’s idea is not cracked, even if their methods are too extreme for me to be comfortable with.
Barbara Harris is a zealot, and I think she is too much of an extremeist. But when she gives interviews in which she states that people should try adopting drug-addicted babies and children, like she did, before they oppose her, you can’t deny she has a point. I do agree that children should have a nurturing and stable environment, and that this environment is not likely to be possible if the parents (far more likely, parent) is addled with drugs. Also, drug addicts frequently have far too much trauma in their lives to be able to cope with a baby.
When a foetus is in development in the womb, it is surrounded by an organ called the placenta. The placenta connects the developing foetus to its mother’s bloodstream, and takes nutrients, water and oxygen from the mother to pass into the foetus as it develops into a baby. The placenta is a clever organ, and is noemally very selective about what it allows to come into contact with the foetus as it grows inside the womb.
However, the brain is also a very protected organ, and drugs cannot reach the brain unless they are very powerful (in particular they must be very small to get inside the brain through tiny pores, and must very easily dissolve in fat so that they can penetrate cell membranes). If a drug can reach the brain in large enough doses that it can change a person’s mood in the way that major narcotics do, then chances are it can cross over from our blood into almost every cell in our body. And that includes crossing from the mother’s bloodstream into the placenta, and from there into the developing baby.
Research on animals has shown that infants born to heroin-using mothers typically have 50-100% of the mother’s blood drug level in their own blood. Newborns are already addicted and as soon as they are born, they enter withdrawal, a particularly painful and physically gruelling process. Horrific. Furthermore, any infections the mother has contracted through her drug use is likely to be passed on to the baby, premature births, stillbirths and birth defects are much more likely, and learning difficulties, social problems and behavioural issues are far more common, in these children – although it’s hard to say for certain if this is a product of the drugs or their environment.
It is wise and socially responsible to mitigate this problem, and I think that advocating birth control for addicts would be a wise thing to do. Sterilisation is too extreme – and giving a cash reward is a disaster. However, the contraceptive pill is cheap, safe and effective. Providing the contraceptive pill, which is safe, effective and can be discontinued, and/or condoms, which also protect against STI’s, to drug addicts, and an incentive to take them, may not be a bad idea. But this incentive must not be cash. It would be easy to administer – a woman takes the pill in the presence of a volunteer at a centre, and then receives something like a cup of soup or a stamp on a card which they can trade for clothing or another such item when they have accumulated enough.
In many ways I do see CRACK as a cop-out. They claim that children who are born to addicts are abused and neglected, and I fear they are right. But they claim that these children go on to be abused and neglected in care, and this is one of their justifications for their cash-for-fertility plan. But why are abuse and neglect so rife in care in America? Harris, whatever you think of her, clearly has a lot of energy and passion and could make a real difference to many lives if she focused on improving the care system. It’s the AIDS vaccine argument – an AIDS victim was quoted once, saying the thought of a vaccine scared him, becuase if a vaccine were developed, the world would forget about those who already had the disease. To me, it seems that that is what CRACK are doing – sterilising people to stop their possible offspring going to care, using the failings of the care system to justify this, yet ultimately doing nothing to improve or safeguard conditions for those already in care.
My first impression was that CRACK were cracked, and I remain uncomfortable with their methods. On further reflection though, things are not that clear cut and while I don’t like the methods they use, I do think that their ideas, if effected more moderately, could benefit addicts and society. Ultimitely though, drug addiction and drug-addled newborn babies are real and complex problems, and its about time we mustered the political will to tackle them – and perhaps the first step to successfully mitigating these problems is to admit that there is no easy, clear-cut way to do it.