Project Prevention and the price of eggs

Barbara Harris is profiled in The Guardian today with a substantial interview about Project Prevention. It’s a doubly disappointing piece – because of the opportunity it gives Harris to promote her questionable charity, and because of the missed opportunity to scrutinise what she’s offering.

Jenny Kleeman’s feature suggests that the journalist is personally appalled by Harris’ methods (“It feels profoundly unsettling to be walking around one of Britain’s poorest districts with a woman who’s promising people serious money in exchange for their fertility,” she writes) but willing to give creedence to the campaigner’s aims – Kleeman accepts that the birth of children to drug-addicted mothers is a problem that needs solving.

Project Prevention isn’t the only approach to that problem, though. In fact, and moral objections aside, it looks like a painfully ineffective program when the numbers are laid out. In its 12 years, Project Prevention has served just over 3,000 individuals. Meanwhile, about 2,000 children every month are referred to the Department Of Children And Family Services in LA, where Project Prevention was launched.

The problem is that, while bribes can be a good incentive, they’re limited – they’ll only work on the person who receives the money. Take into account what Harris must lay out for travel and admin as she takes her project to the world, as well as the expense of providing contraception where there isn’t an NHS (a contraceptive implant costs £80 for the device, not including the cost of actually inserting the thing), and suddenly this is a really pricey way of preventing pregnancies.

Education programs, on the other hand, could reach many more people for the same price. And it’s not as if pregnancy and childbirth are cost-free experiences for the mother: they’re risky, they’re inconvenient, and the resultant offspring are pretty expensive. An education program aimed at deterring conception in addicts could lay out these penalties among the arguments for using contraception.

But Harris’ bribes turn fertility into a commodity that can be pawned away. If you were desperate for money, and aware of the program, there’d probably be a hefty temptation to wait until Project Prevention could serve you rather than go through the NHS for free. As well as putting money into the drugs market (because addicts undoubtedly spend their bribes to feed their addictions), Project Prevention creates a subsidiary market in fertility.

So, ethics aside, this looks like an ineffective program with potentially bad unintended consequences: what, then, is it actually for? Well, Project Prevention started out as a campaign to criminalise women who gave birth to drug-addicted babies and subject them to compulsory sterilisation. Harris failed to get the law she wanted – but Project Prevention allows her to continue lobbying for control over other people’s fertility. Because while it’s an inefficient way of providing contraception, its shock value means it probably works out quite cheaply as a way of buying press coverage. And it’s Harris’ ambitions to legislate fertility that should really make us look hard at the ethical basis of her campaign.

Text © Sarah Ditum, 2010