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 Gov. 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 get:
[Cue sound of crickets chirping]
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.
Jeanne Flavin is a professor of sociology at Fordham University. She is also the author of Our Bodies, Our Crimes: The Policing of Women's Reproduction in America and serves as president of the board of directors for National Advocates for Pregnant Women.