Israel Admits Targeting Ethiopian Jews for Compulsory Contraception

Posted by Diane Tober February 7, 2013
Biopolitical Times
After five years of denials, Israeli government officials have admitted to targeting Ethiopian Jewish immigrant women with long-acting contraceptive injections without their consent. Most of the women were either coerced into accepting the Depo Provera injections while living in Israeli-run transit camps in Ethiopia, or were unaware that the injections produced temporary sterilization.

This controversy first surfaced in 2008, when Sebba Reuven interviewed 35 Ethiopian women awaiting immigration to Israel. Some of their stories were included in a report by Israeli investigative journalist Gal Gabbay that aired several weeks ago on Israeli Educational Television. One Ethiopian woman explained:
We said we won’t have the shot. They told us, “if you don’t you won’t go to Israel…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 there. So we accepted the injection. It was only with their permission that we were allowed to leave.   
After arriving in Israel, the Ethiopian immigrants still received Depo Provera in disproportionate numbers in the HMOs providing health care services.  According to a report by Hedva Eyal at Isha L’Isha, a feminist organization in Haifa, among the 4833 Israeli women injected with Depo Provera between 2005 and 2008, 57% were of Ethiopian origin—yet Ethiopians comprise less than 2% of the population. Over the past 10 years, Ethiopians in Israel have experienced a 50% decline in birthrate.

Women’s groups in Israel were alerted to the situation in 2008, when Rachel Mangoli, who runs a day care center for 120 Ethiopian children in a suburb of Tel Aviv with a large Ethiopian community, observed that she had received only one new child in the previous three years. According to Mangoli:
I started to think about how strange the situation was after I had to send back donated baby clothes because there was no one in the community to give them to.
In 2008, when queried about the discrepancy between Depo Provera use among Ethiopians and other groups, Israeli Health Minister Yaacov Ben Yezri reportedly explained that Ethiopian women had a “cultural preference” for contraceptive injection.  However, World Health Organization reports on contraceptive use in Ethiopia reveal that this is not the case; in fact, three-quarters of women in Ethiopia using birth control choose the contraceptive pill. Ethiopian-born social worker Mekonen-Dego told the Los Angeles Times that “the suggestion Ethiopian women can’t be trusted with responsibility for their own health is outrageous.”

Haaretz reported this week that Health Ministry Director General Prof. Ron Gamzu has now ordered four health maintenance organizations to discontinue prescriptions of Depo Provera for women of Ethiopian origin if “for any reason there is concern that they might not understand the ramifications of the treatment.” Sharona Eliahu Chai, a lawyer for the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI), whose complaint prompted Gamzu’s response, said:
Findings from investigations into the use of Depo Provera are extremely worrisome, raising concerns of harmful health policies with racist implications in violation of medical ethics.
The use of Depo Provera among Ethiopian immigrants is particularly disturbing because its side effects—including depression, dizziness, abdominal pain, loss of bone density, and possibly increased breast and cervical cancer rates—are well-known. To impose it without proper consent amounts to a potentially harmful policy of compulsory contraception.

The Depo Provera scandal takes place against the background of the Israeli government pro-natalist policies that provide incentives for other (fairer) Jewish women to produce more children, in part as a demographic race with Palestinians. Unfortunately, this contradictory approach to reproductive policy is in keeping with the social and ethnic stratification of Israeli society. In The Chosen Body (2002), Meira Weiss describes Israeli “body politics” that put white Ashkenazi (European Jewish) male bodies at the top of the social hierarchy. In descending order, they are followed by Mizrahi (Middle Eastern Jews), and then by Ethiopian Jews. Only Israeli Arabs, non-Jewish immigrants, and Palestinians in the Occupied Palestinian Territories rank lower.

The coerced prescription of Depo Provera to Ethiopian Jews also stems from broader dynamics in Israeli society. These include lingering questions voiced by a number of Ultra Orthodox Israeli rabbis and others about whether Ethiopian immigrants are actually Jewish; concern that African immigrants in general are a drain on the system and will, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu put it, “threaten our existence as a Jewish and democratic state”; and widespread discrimination against Ethiopian Jews, who often live in marginalized and impoverished communities and who face social barriers to equal access to jobs, education and housing.

Of course, contraceptive coercion is not restricted to Israel. Depo Provera, and other long-term contraceptives,  have been widely tested and used on marginalized women throughout the Third World, including in apartheid South Africa, among Afghan refugees in Iran, and among poor black women in the United States.

World-wide, the struggle for reproductive and social justice demands attention. The Israeli Health Ministry’s revised directive about the use Depo Provera is a small step in the right direction. However, the discriminatory policies of the Israeli government, toward various ethnic and religious groups, require continued scrutiny.

Previously on Biopolitical Times:

•    Disturbing Reports of Government-led Forced Sterilization in Uzbekistan
•    Israeli feminists respond to Romanian egg scandal
•    Stratified Reproduction