The Sound of Silence: Catholic Hierarchy’s Lack of Response to Abuse of Women by “Project Prevention”

Recently, an all-Catholic coalition of 43 dioceses, hospitals, church agencies, schools and other religious-owned or operated but public entities filed a dozen separate lawsuits against the Obama administration, protesting the requirement that insurance plans covering secular employees include contraceptive services. These lawsuits follow on the heels of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ high-profile attacks on nuns and Girl Scouts.

What I find as interesting as who Catholic leaders have chosen to attack is when they choose to be silent.

I “get” that many Catholics have a moral objection to contraceptive use (though presumably this group does not include the 98 percent of sexually-active Catholic women who report ever using a contraceptive method other than natural family planning). I also concede that the selectivity of the “right to life” position is nothing new; the Church has yet to file lawsuits against Texas Governor Rick Perry and the state of Texas for their staggering stream of executions.

Still, it seems reasonable that the same Catholic officials who are incensed by the prospect of insurance coverage for contraception would take strong issue with Project Prevention, a program that pays a targeted group of women to be sterilized or use long-acting forms of contraception. A search of the Internet, however, indicates that Catholic leadership has said absolutely nothing on the matter.

Project Prevention is a national organization based in North Carolina that claims chapters in 27 states. It has a presence in the United Kingdom and Kenya and has floated plans to expand to Haiti, South Africa and Australia. Project Prevention pays $300 for women who “abuse” drugs or alcohol to undergo long-term birth control or sterilization. Project Prevention targets only the reproductive capacity of some low-income women; the organization does nothing to address women’s need for comprehensive reproductive health care, effective drug treatment programs, mental health services, and social, economic and educational support. Moreover, Project Prevention encourages dangerous stereotypes about the women and their children. (This video challenges such characterizations.)

Project Prevention has garnered considerable publicity since its founding in 1997, having been featured on national television shows and in most major newspapers. Its Facebook page features status updates such as:

“Excited to write several checks to addicts this morning, but most excited that 6 [women] were under age 20” and “No better way to start my morning than writing 14 checks to addicts/alcoholics who obtained long term birth control.”

Earlier this year, Project Prevention proudly celebrated a milestone, having paid 4,000 women to undergo long-term birth control and sterilization.

Despite Project Prevention’s visibility, I could not find evidence that a single spokesperson of a major Catholic organization has ever weighed in on their activities.

Project Prevention was originally called Children Requiring a Caring Kommunity or “C.R.A.C.K.” The old name reflects the organization’s focus on crack cocaine rather than substances like alcohol, tobacco or prescription medicines that also pose a threat to fetal health but are more commonly used by white and middle-class women. Because another classy thing about Project Prevention is that more than half of its clients are racial or ethnic minorities. Mind you, founder Barbara Harris insists that Project Prevention doesn’t target any particular race. As she explains:

“We target drug addicts, and that’s it. Skin color doesn’t matter, and we believe all babies matter, even black babies,” and “If you’re a drug addict, we’re looking for you, and I don’t care what color you are, because we don’t even know what color your baby will be, because often these babies come out all different colors. They’re mixed.”

The heads of major Catholic organizations apparently have not seen fit to issue an official statement of any kind in the face of Project Prevention’s thinly veiled racial prejudice or its promotion of contraceptive use.

Disturbing? You haven’t heard the half of it. Project Prevention’s recruitment strategies rely on referrals from probation offices, jails, drug treatment programs, methadone clinics and law enforcement agencies. There have been reports of workers (and others) being paid a $50 referral fee.

“Project Prevention is growing and even making inroads into state institutions,” Harris has boasted. “We’ve had many organizations, county and state agencies come on board and start referring women to us. We have jails that allow our volunteers in to tell inmates about our program. We have drug treatment programs that are referring women to us. We have methadone clinics that have our information posted on the walls, and probation departments-just many, many agencies, in a lot of states, that are learning about us and making referrals to us.”

To recap: You have an organization that for 15 years has sustained a highly-publicized campaign of paying low-income women of color who struggle with drug problems to be sterilized or subjected to long-acting birth control, and which relies on government agents for referrals and government-funded agencies to provide the contraception and sterilization services.

In light of this, we might expect Catholic leadership to be at least as vocal in their opposition to Project Prevention as they are toward the coverage of women’s voluntary contraceptive use (or, say, the Girl Scouts).

Instead, we hear… crickets.


Perhaps others, like me, find it increasingly difficult to listen to what some Catholic leaders have to say on the subject of morality when their silence on Project Prevention and many other matters of significant moral import has been nothing short of deafening.

  • cmarie

    Actually the Church has gone on record as opposing this particular program.  I think Project Prevention is a good idea.  The last thing a chronic drug or alcohol abuser needs is another baby, especially if the first one is suffering from drug or alcohol exposure in utero.  Such children require a great deal of care.  It’s often possible for them to do well but not without very attentive parenting.  Even having said that though, the long term birth control is, I think a better idea than anything permanent.  Also you state that “many Catholics have a moral objection to contraception”.  Many Catholics do have a moral objection to abortion (barring rape, danger to the mother’s life or severe, severe fetal disability).  But if your going to oppose abortion you have to be pretty reasonable about contraception and of course most people are.  I’m Catholic and I could count on one hand the number of people I know who “have a moral objection to contraception”.  Also you forgot the link!        but getting back to the subject; the Catholic Church itself does (unfortunately I think) oppose Project Prevention

  • veggietart

    Project Prevention has its flaws, to be sure, and is short-sighted–of course it’s easier to sterliize addicts than to get them long-term care to help them overcome/control their addictions. 

    The point you touched on earlier is more concering:  The Catholic Church’s silence when it comes to politicians who favor capital punishment, who oppose reasonable gun-control regulations, and who oppose programs that help the poor.  The Catholic Church has yet to say a thing about them.

  • mayab

    I support Project Prevention. You blame them because “the organization does nothing to address women’s need for comprehensive reproductive health care, effective drug treatment programs, mental health services, and social, economic and educational support.” How idiotic. Is Planned Parenthood bad because they’re not saving the rainforests and building houses for the poor? Of course not, they can’t do everything. They focus on one area, reproductive care, and they do a great job of it. Similarly, Project Prevention is focusing on a very real problem and using voluntary and reversable methods to deal with it.

    You complain that half their clients are minorities; well the other half is white! They target women and men, blacks and whites, anyone who shouldn’t be having kids. I wish they’d expand beyond addicts and offer to pay anyone to use birth-control. Anyone who’d trade their fertility for $300 should not be having kids anyway.

    Also, Barbara Harris adopted 4 children born addicted to drugs. How many have you adotped Jeanne Flavin?

  • oak-cliff-townie

    We…My wife and I have extened family members who would benifit from this project .

    I know the future childen they wouldn’t have would be better off for it .