$200 worth of prevention

A new Seattle nonprofit wants to bribe drug abusing women to not have children.

A SMALL CADRE of volunteers has formed a guerrilla cell in the War on Drugs, armed with simple flyers discreetly posted on the side streets of Pioneer Square, Belltown, and the U District. But Positive Prevention’s message is explosive: They offer $200 cash to drug addicts who will go on birth control or be sterilized, no questions asked.

Their goal is clear: They want to reduce the numbers of drug- and alcohol-affected infants being born. And they have decided that the best way to accomplish this is to pay off the prospective parents. “It seems to me that birth control is just a simple idea that would solve the whole problem,” says Ella Sonnenberg, one of the founders of the group. “I’d rather put $200 to prevent such a disaster—where a child is born with a lot of birth defects, maybe HIV-positive, and then after they get out of intensive care the parents don’t get them back out of the hospital and they end up in foster homes or in prison. It’s just very expensive to society and causes a lot of suffering for the people involved.”

Sonnenberg is an active 60-something retiree who says she was looking “for some project to use up my time and energy.” She had “always been intrigued with the more effective use of birth control” and saw this as an especially good use. “It immediately appealed to me because it is so practical,” she says, “$200 well spent.”

Other people who deal with the same set of people and problems take a radically different view. Kris Nyrup, who works with Street Outreach Services and is one of the most respected drug abuse professionals in the city, says that although he hasn’t had any direct dealings with the group, his “gut reaction” to Positive Prevention’s approach is that it’s “despicable.” Nyrup agrees that it’s not a particularly good idea for “people who are actively addicted to substances, whatever that substance might be,” to be having babies. On the other hand, he says, trading on reproductive rights “just seems wrong.”

Sonnenberg took the idea for a money-for-birth-control program from a national organization called CRACK (a tortured acronym for “Children Require A Caring Kommunity”) that began advertising in Seattle last year. CRACK, headquartered in Anaheim, California, has been setting up shop in a number of cities since 1997 and claims to have paid 281 clients, including 2 men, as of September 12.

According to the statistics posted on their Web site, 138 of those clients have chosen sterilization, including the two men. The others are using some form of birth control, such as Depo Provera, Norplant, or an IUD. African Americans and white women have responded in about equal numbers and account for more than four-fifths of CRACK’s “clients” to date, with Hispanics making up most of the remainder.

Sonnenberg and her fellow board member Jennifer Nelson say they initially worked with CRACK, putting up flyers and helping to raise funds, but preferred to start their own group so they could see the effects more directly. While CRACK enters a new city with a burst of advertising and publicity, there are no billboards or bus ads for Positive Prevention. Nelson says they have raised all of the money for the group from friends and other individuals they have contacted and have spent somewhat less than $3,000 so far.

Since splitting off from CRACK, the group has paid for 15 claimants and received 170 calls for applications, according to Nelson. She says that, before accepting Positive Prevention’s offer, those 15 women had been pregnant 59 times between them, and had given up 10 children to foster care or adoption.

Nelson says few people are aware of the numbers of drug- and alcohol-affected infants born each year—10,000 annually in the state of Washington and between 300,000 and 500,000 nationwide.

BARBARA DRENNAN, whose Pediatric Interim Care Center in Kent has about 15 drug-affected infants in its care right now, says she cannot condone a approach that “burns the mother to save the baby.” “You know what they’re going to do with that $200—they’re going to go out and shoot up or use drugs and possibly overdose and kill themselves. I think there should be a legal way to do this without offering moms a lot of money.” Drennan says most of the mothers she comes in contact with are “devastated” by the fact of giving birth to a drug addicted baby. Most, she says, never thought they could even become pregnant, since most hard drug addicts stop menstruating when they begin using.

Marilyn Knight, a spokesperson for Planned Parenthood of Western Washington, says her organization looks on the plan as “somewhat coercive,” particularly in the case of women getting sterilized to collect their $200. “There are women who, if they are addicted to drugs, would probably do anything to get the money for the drugs,” Knight says. “What I think we would prefer is to have a more holistic approach to treating the woman’s addiction, while at the same time trying to help her with family planning.”

Knight noted that several bills have been proposed in the state legislature that included mandatory birth control for drug dependent women, but those provisions have never made it into law. She says there are some pilot programs currently being tried that include birth control counseling along with treatment services, which Planned Parenthood would have an easier time supporting.

Sonnenberg readily admits that her approach is controversial. A true believer, she attributes the lack of support from substance abuse counselors and birth control advocates to narrow agency agendas and limited missions dictated by their funders.

Her fellow board member Jennifer Nelson says she became convinced of the need to do something about the problem while working as a volunteer guardian ad litem, representing abused and neglected children in court proceedings. “I was involved with the entire family, so I got to know quite a few drug addict parents [who had] the[ir] children . . . taken away from them,” she says. “By the time I would get to the point of going to court to terminate the rights of these parents, [the mother] would be pregnant again.”