OVER the years I’ve met many extraordinary people and heard stories of hardship, tragedy and human suffering. It’s in the nature of journalism that we encounter such things, almost on a daily basis.
Some stories are so heart-rending that they become embedded permanently in my memory.
I find it particularly hard to forget what has been told to me about damaged, abused children whose lives are blighted before they’ve even begun.
The reason I mention this is because a controversial American charity announced this week that it has moved into the UK to offer financial incentives for drug addicts to be sterilised.
It made me think about the foster carer from Huddersfield, who told me that she and her husband had taken care of the baby of a heroin addict.
They took it in turns to spend every night, lying on a bed next to the infant’s cot, holding the hand of the little mite to offer her the comfort of human touch as she experienced painful withdrawal symptoms. It was not the first, nor the last, child of an addict that they fostered.
Another carer I met while writing an article on fostering and adoption explained that the toddler in her care was the son of a drug-addicted prostitute, who had given birth to four children – all had been taken away immediately after delivery.
At the time I spoke to her a fifth baby was on its way and social services were standing by to remove that too.
And so when I read that Project Prevention has already paid for 3,371 American addicts to be either permanently sterilised or given long-term contraception my initial gut reaction was one of ‘why not?’
But, predictably, the organisation has encountered resistance, notably from those who accuse its founder, Barbara Harris, of social engineering and the sort of eugenics that went on in Nazi Germany.
‘But what about the human rights of addicts?’ say the critics.
Harris, a 57-year-old grandmother, who fostered and then adopted four children born to the same crack-addicted woman, says she’s more concerned about the human rights of addicts’ children.
She has described how her campaign is based on the personal experience of caring for the second child she took in. “He couldn’t keep food down and his eyes looked like they were going to bulge out of his head,” she explained.
“Noise bothered him, light bothered him, he just couldn’t sleep.
“My husband and I had to take shifts with him. He would sleep 10 minutes, wake up screaming.
“Most people wash their hands of drug addicts and they don’t see what impact they have on the children they give birth to. I could see it with my own eyes and I thought that something had to be done to stop drug-addicted babies being born.”
Some might say that her solution, offering cash bribes to people who may not be in a fit state to make a rational decision, is both a knee-jerk reaction and wrong. There are even suggestions that the organisation might face future legal action from addicts who have been sterilised but later get clean and want to have children.
But Harris, who accepts that the $300 a year paid to addicts is probably spent on drugs, remains resolute and says that even if an addict’s child is born without mental or physical disabilities, it will be taken into care and shuttled around.
She stresses that a caring society should not put the right of a drug user to have children above the rights of a child to a safe, caring environment.
Also, she points out, it’s not a good for the women themselves to give birth repeatedly, have all their babies taken away, and, even if they get clean, to be denied access to any of them in the future.
Offering addicts money to be sterilised is not eugenics but it does recognise that people with a drug problem do not make good parents. This is indisputable.
And, of course, no woman has to be sterilised, she can opt for contraceptive implants.
I imagine that anyone who has ever worked in social care or in a maternity ward will have quite a different view from the pro-life, human rights supporters because they have delivered the crack babies and seen the neglect caused by addiction. They didn’t need to watch Trainspotting to know that infants suffer in squalor.
This is not a problem that is going to go away and current drug programmes, however well-meaning, are clearly not breaking the cycle of poverty, crime and dependency. In the end, perhaps, it is only drastic measures such as Project Prevention, that will stand a chance of reducing the misery.
And I, for one, would rather deny an addict the chance of future motherhood (or fatherhood) than learn about any more babies with withdrawal symptoms, brain damage or blighted lives.