Health Ministry Director General Prof. Ron Gamzu acknowledged the practice — without directly conceding coercion was involved — in a letter to Israeli health maintenance organizations, instructing gynecologists in the HMOs “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.”
Depo-Provera is a hormonal form of birth control that is injected every three months.
Gamzu issued the letter in response to a complaint from Sharona Eliahu-Chai of the Association of Civil Rights in Israel. Representing several women’s rights and Ethiopian immigrant groups, Eliahu-Chai demanded an immediate end to the injections and that an investigation be launched into the practice.
In addition to Eliahu-Chai, Gal Gabbay, an investigative journalist who had interviewed 35 Ethiopian immigrants, found that while the women were still in transit camps in Ethiopia they were sometimes intimidated or threatened into taking the Depo-Provera shot, often being misled about why. “They told us they are inoculations,” said one of the women interviewed. “They told us people who frequently give birth suffer. We took it every three months. We said we didn’t want to.”
Birth rates and demographics in Israel are often political, and Israel has historically focused on promoting Jewish birthrates to retain a Jewish majority, according to a recent New York Times report on fertility and in-vetro fertilization in the country.
But Ethiopian Jews remain a marginalized group, often living in highly segregated communities. Because of this, many women’s and immigrant rights advocates believe that the 50 percent decline over the past 10 years in the birthrate of Israel’s Ethiopian community is the result of the Israeli government’s attempt to limit and restrict Ethiopian women’s fertility through forcible birth control injections.
Hedva Eyal, head of the Women and Technologies Project for Israeli feminist organization Isha L’Isha, had submitted a report six years ago to the Israeli government showing a disproportionate number of birth control shots — 60 percent — were being given to Ethiopian immigrants. She says she was met with silence, until now.
“The ease with which a woman’s testimony is dismissed — certainly that of a black woman and a poor black woman at that — is shocking,” Eyal told the Los Angeles Times.
Also hoping Israel’s health minister will take further action, Eyal added that the bottom line was that “decisions about women’s health and fertility can and must be made by the women alone.” For that, they must have full and fair access to all relevant information “and that did not seem to have been the case,” she said.