Cracking Open Crack
"We don't allow dogs to breed. We spay them. We neuter them. We try to keep them from having unwanted puppies, and yet these women are literally having litters of children..."
These are the words of Barbara Harris, founder of the organization CRACK, Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity. Based in California, CRACK's mission is to permanently or temporarily sterilize women with substance abuse problems using monetary incentives of $200. As of September 1, 1999, 65 women received cash from CRACK in return for their fertility; 46 of them were permanently sterilized. CRACK has opened a chapter in Chicago and is planning to expand to Minnesota, Florida, Seattle and the New England area.
What is so shocking about CRACK is not only the fact that it exists -- eugenic thinking is all too alive and well in the US -- but the fact that it has received such positive press attention, with favorable articles or editorials in People, Time, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire, and the Chicago Tribune. Once again sacrificing the reproductive rights of poor women and women of color is considered the simple solution to complex social ills.
In its fact sheet on CRACK, the Committee on Women, Population and the Environment lays out the reasons why we should strongly oppose the organization:
1) CRACK'S MISSION IS ESSENTIALLY EUGENIC. Eugenic sterilization laws in the early decades of this century led to the compulsory sterilization of some 60,000 Native-Americans, African-Americans, the mentally and physically disabled, and the poor. Now, at the end of the century, private fertility clinics offer young, educated and privileged women $2500-50,000 to donate their eggs, while CRACK offers poor women with substance abuse problems $200 not to have children.
Though apparently voluntary, CRACK's incentives have far more to do with coercion than with choice. Poor women with substance abuse problems are not likely to be able to make an informed decision about their reproductive capacity if offered cash as an incentive. CRACK takes advantage of their vulnerability by advertising, "Don't let a pregnancy ruin your drug habit," and "If you use drugs, get birth control, get $200 cash."
2) CRACK LIMITS BIRTH CONTROL OPTIONS AND INCREASES HEALTH RISKS. CRACK irresponsibly limits birth control options by compensating only for long-term, provider-controlled methods: tubal ligation, Norplant, Depo Provera and IUDs. These are all associated with substantial health risks, and it is unlikely that women who are CRACK targets have access to the kind of health care which provides adequate contraceptive counselling, screening for contraindications and monitoring of side effects. Meanwhile, barrier methods such as the condom which protect against HIV infection and other sexually transmitted diseases are not compensated by CRACK.
3) CRACK IMPEDES THE GOAL OF SUBSTANCE ABUSE TREATMENT. CRACK's quick-fix approach effectively gives up on treatment as a solution to addiction. So long as women with addiction problems stop having children, nothing else seems to matter. CRACK does not recognize addiction as a medical problem which responds to appropriate treatment. This is part of a larger national trend of criminalizing poor women of color with addiction problems, putting them in prison for 'child abuse' during pregnancy, rather than offering them drug treatment programs.
4) CRACK CAPITALIZES ON THE NOTION OF 'CRACK BABIES' AS WASTED LIVES. Acknowledging that using drugs during pregnancy can harm an infant is very different from CRACK's message that women on drugs should not have babies at all. The notion of 'crack babies' as wasted human lives came about in the late 1980s when reporters exaggerated the effect of crack cocaine on infants and preschoolers. They emphasized the most alarming predictions of doctors and researchers that these infants would experience learning disabilities, attention and behavior disorders, and would have to be written off as a 'lost generation' or 'biological underclass.' Today, there is practically scientific consensus that crack cocaine does no more damage to infants than cigarette smoking and does less damage than heavy alcohol use. CRACK perpetuates the "crack babies" myth, further stigmatizing children labeled as such and contributing to misinformation among the public.
5) OPPRESSION NEEDS TO BE ELIMINATED, NOT THE REPRODUCTIVE CAPACITY OF WOMEN. Women with substance abuse problems need drug treatment, decent jobs, educational opportunities, and mental health and childcare services. If they want birth control, they should have access to high, quality voluntary birth control services as part of respectful, comprehensive health care. It is the lack of all these things and the denial of human dignity which exacerbate conditions of poverty, racism, social status and gender discrimination. These conditions can lead to women seeking out substances to medicate pain. Oppression needs to be eliminated, not the reproductive capacity of women.
more information on the campaign against CRACK, contact CWPE at
Director, Population and Development Program