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The $200 Question

Concerned about drug babies, an Orange County group is offering moms cash if they opt for contraception or even sterilization. But is such an approach moral? critics ask.

April 03, 1998|LYNN SMITH | TIMES STAFF WRITER

On Feb. 24, 26-year-old Stacey Davis, broke and recovering from an addiction to speed, checked into a Long Beach hospital, where a doctor sterilized her by tying her tubes. The next day, an Orange County organization mailed her a check for $200.

"I'm not going to lie," said Davis, a mother of three children in foster care. Although certain she didn't want any more children, she was also attracted by the promise of a reward. "I mean, I need the money right now. I need to do something for me."

Davis is one of eight women who have been sterilized and have taken part in a controversial cash-for-contraception program created by the Anaheim-based CRACK (Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity).

Others who have received money from CRACK after having their tubes tied at area hospitals include a 28-year-old Los Angeles drug user with five children in foster care, a 38-year-old Los Angeles recovering drug user who has given birth to 14 children, and a 32-year-old Anaheim methadone user with six children. Combined, the eight women have given birth to 51 children, 43 of them in foster care, according to CRACK founder Barbara Harris, of Stanton, who has adopted four drug-exposed babies.

The small but growing private program concerns leaders from Planned Parenthood and the American Civil Liberties Union who worry that the cash offer will, in effect, coerce drug users who are poor into making an irreversible choice they may later regret.

"The issue is whether a woman who decides to undergo such a procedure does so voluntarily and with full consent," said Rocio Cordoba, a staff attorney for the ACLU of Southern California. "If a woman is given financial incentives to do so, that raises questions. Two hundred dollars could mean a lot to somebody who has nothing."

Now opening its first office in Anaheim, the group has raised $35,000, including $25,000 from an out-of-state businessman who insists on remaining anonymous. Radio personality Laura Schlessinger has contributed $5,000, and conservative talk-show host Rick Roberts has raised funds through his San Diego radio program. Board members include two social workers, and Los Angeles County Sheriff Sherman Block, chairman of the Inter-Agency Council on Child Abuse and Neglect, is an honorary member.

Advisory board member Carole Rowe said CRACK's program is not based on an extremist ideology and takes no position on abortion.

"We're committed to a voluntary program, which includes not coercing a woman into rehab if she's not ready," said Rowe, a Los Angeles attorney.

CRACK has enlisted seven more potential clients, Harris said, including another Los Angeles drug user, 23, who is planning to undergo sterilization this month after delivering her fourth child.

To find participants, the group sent fliers to hospitals, police departments, probation departments and jails in Los Angeles and Orange counties. One woman called after her social worker gave her a flier. Another called after hearing Harris interviewed on a radio show. This month, Harris is expanding advertising to bus benches outside welfare offices and hospitals in the poorer districts of Los Angeles and Orange counties.

Without universal drug testing in hospitals, Harris said, rich women can evade detection more easily. "It's not ever going to be fair," she said. "My focus is just going to have to be on the poor babies. That's the bottom line."

The program offers $200 for a tubal ligation, a Norplant insertion or a vasectomy in the case of male addicts. The figure was considered "motivating, but not coercive," said Harris, adding that all the women so far have chosen sterilization over long-term contraception. To qualify, participants must have at least two children and must obtain verification from a doctor within 60 days before they are paid; if they don't know where to go, Harris offers referrals to Planned Parenthood or a free clinic. The program does not pay for the procedure, which can be financed through Medi-Cal or other subsidies.

It is up to the providers to see that the women are fully informed and consenting, Harris said.

Added Rowe, "They don't make a decision while they're still stoned. A person needs to sign a state waiver form to receive sterilization services, and that presumes they're competent at the time."

The process isn't always smooth. One drug user, a homeless, 29-year-old mother of two, tried to obtain Norplant and then disappeared after Planned Parenthood providers told her she needed to schedule an appointment for the procedure.

When Davis, the recovering speed addict, heard about CRACK from a fellow resident in her drug recovery program, "I thought, 'Great, I could use the money. And I'm going to do it anyway.' "

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