When Barbara Harris was 37, she started wishing she could have a daughter. It was 1989, and by that time only two of her six sons were still at home. So she filled out all the paperwork, and later that summer got a call about an 8-month-old baby girl. As soon as Barbara met her, she knew that was it -- this was her daughter. She named her Destiny Harris. But before she could take her home, the social worker told Barbara that Destiny had tested positive for crack, PCP, and heroin. Her mom was addicted to drugs, and doctors said Destiny was delayed mentally and physically as a result, and always would be.
Producer Pat Walters flew down to North Carolina to meet Barbara and Destiny, who's now 22 years old. And Barbara tells Pat, a few months after she brought Destiny home, she and her husband got another call. Destiny's mom had given birth to another boy. They went to the hospital to pick him up, and he was going through withdrawal from heroin. Then Barbara got another call: a little girl. And a year later, another little boy. By 1994 she'd adopted four kids from the same woman. And she was feeling angry -- how could this be allowed to happen? She decided to take a stand by trying to get a law passed for longterm birth control. And when that failed, she decided to take matters into her own hands. She founded an organization called Project Prevention, and began paying women with drug addiction to get IUDs, or get sterilized.
Lynn Paltrow, the Executive Director and founder of National Advocates for Pregnant Women, argues that Project Prevention is misguided and harmful, and articulates many of the objections raised by Barbara's critics.
While Barbara's prenatal neglect law didn't pass, other states have since found ways to prosecute women for using drugs during their pregnancies. For an overview, check out this excellent New York Times Magazine story.
Producer’s note from Pat — Even Barbara Harris’s fiercest critics agree with her on one point: We all want healthy babies. It’s the way Barbara pursues that goal that gets people upset with her. In the course of reporting this story I came across an organization that shares Barbara’s mission — to stop babies from being born to mothers who are addicted to drugs — but goes about it in a very different way. It’s called the Parent-Child Assistance Program (or PCAP). Based at Washington State University, the program was founded in 1991 by by Dr. Ann Streissguth, the woman who discovered Fetal Alcohol Syndrome. According to Lori McDonald, one of the program’s clinical directors, pregnant women (or women who’ve given birth in the past six months) who have a drug-dependence problem are referred to the program by social workers, attorneys, and family members, then paired with a counselor who helps them find drug treatment and, if needed, a job and a safe place to live. The counselor also has a frank discussion with the client about birth control, McDonald says, telling them respectfully, think about taking measures to put off your next pregnancy until you get healthy and back on your feet. PCAP’s is a vastly different approach from Project Prevention’s. And yet, in the course of that discussion about birth control, McDonald says, her counselors often mention Project Prevention. And it’s not unheard of for PCAP’s clients to take Harris up on her offer. McDonald says the PCAP system has spread to several other states over the years.