Women who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia were coerced into accepting injections of the birth control drug Depo-Provera before they were allowed into the country, a Ministry of Health official admitted Sunday. As a result the birth rate of the Ethiopian community in Israel has dropped 20 to 50 percent in the past 10 years, as Haaretz first reported in December.
On Sunday, Haaretz reported that Health Ministry Director-General Ron Gamzu had instructed the ministry and participating state agencies to halt this practice, six weeks after a television special aired revealing that women in transit camps between Ethiopia and Israel were told they would not be allowed to enter Israel without accepting the injections.
The Health Ministry also initially denied the claims, but in the letter to the HMOs who were providing the drug asks them “not to renew prescriptions for Depo-Provera for women of Ethiopia origin if for any reason there is concern that they might not understand the ramifications of the treatment,” Haaretz translated.
Thirty-five Ethiopian immigrants to Israel, all women, were interviewed for the documentary and said they were told they would be barred from receiving medical care and eventually entering Israel unless they accepted the shots.
"We said we won't have the shot. They told us, if you don't you won't go to Israel … and you won't get aid or medical care,” one woman told her interviewer. “We were afraid... We didn't have a choice. Without them and their aid we couldn't leave there [the transit camp]. So we accepted the injection. It was only with their permission that we were allowed to leave." The shots of Depo-Provera were continued once the women reached Israel.
Another woman told the interviewer that the women were informed that the injections were “inoculations,” and were warned against having large families.
In response to the documentary, the American Joint Distribution Committee, the Jewish organization that ran the family planning clinics in the immigrant transit camps, called the claims by the women “nonsense.”
“The medical team does not intervene directly or indirectly in economic aid, and the Joint is not involved in the aliyah [immigration] procedures,” the committee told Haaretz. “With regard to the use of Depo Provera, studies indicate that is the most popular form of birth control among women in Ethiopia.”
In an email message to the blog failedmessiah.com, the JDC’s chief medical officer, Dr. Rick Hodes, said the JDC “offers voluntary contraception” to immigrant populations. “Women come to the program because they desire family planning,” Hodes wrote. “We present the various options to them and they choose.”
“Right now we’re caring for about 4,500 potential immigrants to Israel,” Hodes added. “We average about 85 family planning visits each month.”
The JDC does not operate any clinics within Israel for immigrants.
In regards to the drop in birth rate, Hodes wrote that it was simply a matter of timing. “We offered family planning to the population at a time when it was less available to the general public, and our population chose to use it.”
Ethiopian Jews have been immigrating to Israel in waves ever since the 1930s, including two major operations by Israel to airlift the community to Israel between 1979 and 1991. As of 2011, the total population of Ethiopians living in Israel was 130,000, according to the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics.