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May 19, 2006

Spiking Methadone With Oral Contraceptives, the Latest in the War on Reproductive Rights

It is a refreshing change to see how legislators across the Atlantic are so forthcoming about their intentions, as compared to our own sly devils. In the United Kingdom, Duncan McNeil, a Scottish Parliament Minister, wants to add oral contraceptives into methadone in order to punish opiate addicted women who are taking steps to end drug dependency and lead healthier lives. He offers this Faustian deal: if you want methadone, which is a medically approved and prescribed TREATMENT for opiate addiction, then you must give up your right to procreate. Whether you have to read between the lines or just read between the quotes, advocates on both sides of the Atlantic are saying the same thing: If you are poor, a person of color, and use certain drugs, you are a bad person and the more of these characteristics you have, the more undeserving you are to be a mom.

McNeil’s suggestion follows the death of a child who ingested the methadone that was prescribed for his parents. McNeil’s rationale is that he is protecting children from harm by preventing their potential mothers from ever bearing them. “I don’t think it’s a good idea that when you’re addicted to drugs, you should start a family.” While few Americans have been so bold to suggest that we lace the medications of certain groups with contraceptive drugs, that statement sounds eerily familiar. Barbara Harris, the Executive Director of Children Require A Caring Kommunity (C.R.A.C.K.), now known as Project Prevention (PP), could be Duncan McNeil’s twin. She too, has stated that "I'm sure one thing most can agree on is that it is important for those using methadone or other drugs to refrain from getting pregnant” in outreach literature that PP has sent to methadone clinics. PP offers $200 to currently or previously drug-addicted or alcoholic women who agree to be sterilized or to use a long acting contraceptive such as Norplant or Depo-Provera.

In addition to providing misinformation on drug use among pregnant women, this organization shows little or no belief in the likelihood that drug users can ever live productive lives or be caring, compassionate parents. Rather than promote treatment and increase the availability of health services to help women and families, this organization spreads dangerous propaganda, claiming that “women and men who are using or addicted to drugs are often responsible for an extraordinary number of pregnancies (5-10) or more.” Duncan McNeil perpetuates a similar myth, asking “[w]hy are we in a situation where so many of those who are addicted to drugs are having children?” The truth is that studies have shown that low-income women with drug problems have an average of two to three children each, pretty much like everyone else. The state has no business regulating procreation, period. Governments in the past have tried such approaches (think Germany, think US eugenics laws) with disastrous results.

The similarities between the two are uncanny - could they have been separated at birth? Both Harris and McNeil claim to be fighting child abuse, when in reality they are fighting to control and limit women’s reproductive rights. McNeil expressly promotes punishing women who are seeking treatment, (and oh yes, even though he doesn’t specify which gender would be subject to his plan, oral contraception only works on women) and punishing poor families for choosing to have children. He believes that if you are on medication that enables you to lead a healthy and happy life, the state may nonetheless decide that you don’t have the right to have a family. So, beware all you women out there with health issues that require you to take prescription medication like methadone, prednisone, cytoxin, or insulin, all of which, if left open and unattended, can be deadly to small children if ingested. How dare you think that, despite having cancer, lupus, diabetes, or any other disease, you have the right to bear a child!

On our own shores, legislators don’t need to spell out so bluntly their plan to curtail the right to procreate of those people that they find distasteful when we have organizations like PP and our own courts! In New York, Judge Marilyn O’Connor banned a couple from having any more children until they are economically capable of regaining custody of the children that had already been removed from them. In New Mexico, a woman was given a probation condition that she not get pregnant for five years. And let’s not forget the media! Remember when Norplant first passed FDA approval? A few weeks later, the Philadelphia Inquirer printed an editorial in which it suggested that Norplant could be a useful tool for "reducing the underclass," linking the need for population control to black women on welfare.

Arguments for controlling and punishing procreation of certain groups remains a potent argument on both sides of the Atlantic. Those who truly believe in “choice” and in reproductive justice, must be ever vigilant, ready to fight intrusions on reproductive rights including those made in the guise of child protection and the war on drugs and drug users.

Tiloma Jayasinghe, NAPW Baron Edmond de Rothschild Staff Attorney Fellow

May 11, 2006

In Memoriam—Lawrence Lader & Gloria C. Knighton

Yesterday’s New York Times carried a lengthy obituary for a key reproductive rights thinker and leader, Lawrence Lader. Through his early journalism and then activism, he was one of the first people in the 1960’s to openly expose and challenge US laws criminalizing abortion. It is safe to say that his research, writing, and help in founding the National Association for the Repeal of Abortion Laws (NARAL) were key factors in igniting an American movement for reproductive rights. I did not know Larry well, but I admired him greatly. I particularly appreciated him because he was one of the few people to document the truly radical, grassroots activism of other women and men of the early reproductive rights movement. Through him, I learned about such people as Patricia Maginnes, the founder of the nation’s first abortion rights organization, and a woman who actively sought to be arrested as a way to challenge California laws restricting the distribution of information about abortion, contraception, and venereal disease.


Larry stayed active all of his long life and I even had the privilege of once helping to represent him and another organization that he founded, ARM (Abortion Rights Mobilization) in their efforts to make RU486 available to women in the United States.


In addition to Larry, America’s reproductive rights movement lost another key activist this year – though one far less recognized.

She was my friend, ally, and NAPW advisory board member Gloria C. Knighton. I met Gloria in the 1980’s when she was hired as an administrative assistant at the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project. Gloria did not come from privilege and, in fact, struggled through much adversity to support herself and her family. Gloria was a rare person who could honestly say she loved her hometown of Newark, NJ. More than almost anything – except perhaps her husband Leon—and more than even Newark, Gloria loved her work.

Gloria was proud, actually thrilled, to be part of any effort to defend human rights, including women’s rights and reproductive rights. She had unique skills at working with highly dedicated but sometimes temperamental lawyers. But what she especially, and most particularly loved, was the challenge of producing last-minute briefs. This often meant staying up night after night typing, copying, and organizing endless exhibits for absolutely last minute filing. There was no one with her energy, flare, and dedication to these all night legal advocacy extravaganzas. And through it all Gloria could be counted upon for “keeping it real.” She ensured that issues of race, class, and fairness –as well as the latest Farrikhan media uproar, the O.J. Simpson trial, or whatever was happening with Whitney Houston (Gloria babysat for her when she was little)—never went without extended comment and analysis.

Gloria Knighton was part of the group that founded the Center for Reproductive Law and Policy (now CRR). With the exception of some years at a large financial firm – something she considered to be a sort of public interest exile- she spent most of her adult life working for, with, or on behalf of public interest and civil rights organizations. She helped establish National Advocates for Pregnant Women and served on our advisory board. Gloria was an avid supporter of another organization as well, Be Present, Inc. In October of last year she attended their Black and Female, What is the Reality? retreat where she found friendship, support and a place to recharge and refresh her activist soul. At the time of her death, Gloria was working for the Center for Constitutional Rights and with her beloved friend Cathy Albisa’s organization, the National Economic And Social Rights Initiative.

What I am struck by most, though, and what is not reflected in any obituary or even on any formal court documents, is that there are very few major reproductive rights cases in the past twenty years in which Gloria did not play an important role. In many cases, including quite a few that went to the United States Supreme Court, the legal briefs would not have been produced and filed without the benefit of Gloria’s extraordinary talent, commitment, and energy.

Gloria and Larry never stopped working for reproductive rights and social justice. I will never stop appreciating them, their commitment, and their life-long activism that should be a model for all of us.