LONDON, Oct. 19, 2010 -- An American charity that pays drug addicts to get sterilized has expanded its operation into Great Britain, and while it has so far paid only one British man to undergo the procedure, it has triggered a storm of criticism.
Barbara Harris, the founder and head of Project Prevention, shrugs off the criticism of her group, which has paid 3,600 American drug addicts $300 each to get sterilized or undergo other long-term birth control procedures.
"I really don't understand controversy or people who oppose what we do," Harris said. "I think a lot of people should realize they're never going to be good parents, and never have children."
"If I had enough money, there wouldn't be any pregnancies for drug addicts," she said.
So far, the program has had a modest start in Britain. Harris paid a Leicester man £200, about $314, to have a vasectomy in September. The man, identified only as John, told the BBC the money influenced his decision to undergo the procedure.
"It was something that I'd been thinking about for a long time, and something I wanted to do. I just hadn't got around to it," he said.
Harris said, however, that Project Prevention has more than 100 people on a waiting list. She's waiting to get her international nonprofit set up so she can start paying them, and also hopes to hire a British staff member soon.
Harris' work has been controversial.
"It's exploiting people," said Gill Nowland, the chief executive of a drug rehabilitation home for women and children called One25. "The women we work with, due to the drug addictions, are not in sound minds to make such life-changing decisions."
One25 is one of many organizations that have spoken out against Harris' nonprofit. While Nowland supports long-term birth control, she believes sterilization is a step too far.
Like many, she also criticized Harris' cash incentive for addicts. "They're going to see that money as drugs. ... That money will go straight into the pockets of drug dealers, pimps and controlling men."
Project Prevention Generates Controversy
One former British drug addict, who wished to keep her name private, said when she heard about Harris' program she became angry. The woman got pregnant while using crack and heroin, and her now 5-month-old daughter is healthy and thriving.
"It's saying that they can't change their lives, they can't be anything other than a drug addict," the woman said. "If you say drug addicts shouldn't be parents, maybe sick people shouldn't be parents, maybe poor people shouldn't be parents."
But Harris says she's just out to help children. Since quitting her 20-year-plus job as a waitress at an International House of Pancakes and adopting four children from a drug-addicted parent, Harris has dedicated her life to preventing pregnancy in drug addicts.
Harris makes it clear that she's not forcing anyone to get sterilized, and everyone who's opted for sterilization in Project Prevention has already had children. Harris is happy if people choose long-term birth control options like IUD or Implanon. But she says if people want to be sterilized, it's an acceptable choice. In the past, she's had women call her complaining that they've been denied sterilization because of their young age.
"If your doctor refuses to do that, then I think they should pay child support," Harris said.
In the United States, Harris says she's worked with several government agencies to help spread the word of her program. No such support has turned up in the United Kingdom, but she does have about 50 volunteers ready to go. She said that even though government officials haven't voiced their approval, she knows they're thinking it.
"I really feel they're probably closet cheerleaders," she said.