The Israeli government has tacitly acknowledged injecting Ethiopian women immigrating to Israel with a long-acting contraceptive without their knowledge, telling them they couldn’t come into the country if they didn’t take the shot, which the women thought was a vaccination.
Many have called the practice appallingly racist.
The shots are being blamed for a 50 percent drop in the birth rate in Israel’s Ethiopian community over the past decade.
There are about 120,000 Jews of Ethiopian origin living in Israel, about a third of them born in Israel. There have long been conspiracy theories circulating about forced sterilization. But after a documentary aired last month on Israel’s Educational Network, Health Ministry Director General Ron Gamzu has banned Israel’s health maintenance organizations from injecting Ethiopian women with the contraceptive Depo-Provera.
Gamzu sent out a letter to HMOs telling them “not to renew prescriptions for Depo-Provera for women of Ethiopian origin if for any reason there is concern that they might not understand the ramifications of the treatment,” the news site Haaretz reported Sunday.
According to Haaretz, the documentary chronicled 35 Ethiopian women who immigrated to Israel eight years ago and said they were told they would not be allowed to move to Israel unless they agreed to the Depo-Provera shots.
“We said we won’t have the shot,” recounted one of the women, according to Haaretz. “They told us, if you don’t you won’t go to Israel. And also you won’t be allowed into (an assistance program), you won’t get aid or medical care. We were afraid … We didn’t have a choice. Without them and their aid we couldn’t leave (Ethiopia). So we accepted the injection. It was only with their permission that we were allowed to leave.”
According to the Times of Israel, some of the women didn’t know the shots contained contraceptives; they thought the shots were vaccinations. Others said they kept receiving them after they came to Israel and complained of side effects such as headaches and abdominal pain.
Last month, a report by a local investigative journalist, Gal Gabbay, showed that women in a transit camp in Ethiopia awaiting emigration were told they would have to get the shots in order to come to Israel.
According to the Los Angeles Times, the possible side effects of the drug include a decrease in bone density that puts women at increased risk for osteoporosis and fracture. In addition, returning to fertility can be a lengthy process and withdrawal symptoms can be acute.
“Depo-Provera has a shameful history,” Efrat Yardai wrote in an op-ed for Haaretz, explaining that the drug was used between 1967 and 1978 as part of an experiment that took place in the U.S. state of Georgia on 13,000 impoverished women, half of whom were black. Many of them were unaware that the injections were part of an experiment. Some of the women became sick and a few died during the experiment.
Ethiopian Jews have faced widespread discrimination and isolation since being moved to Israel in the 1980s. Some were forced to live in transit camps or absorption centers to “adjust to society.” They face widespread discrimination in the job market and the educational system.
Hevda Eyal, author of the report “By Women to Women,” told the National that the birth control shots were about “reducing the number of births in a community that is black and mostly poor.”
The Times of Israel details the case of a nurse — captured by a hidden camera in a health clinic — telling an Ethiopian woman that the shot is given to Ethiopian immigrants because “they forget, they don’t understand, and it’s hard to explain to them, so it’s best that they receive a shot once every three months … basically they don’t understand anything.”