Israel changes birth-control policy for Ethiopian immigrants

Amid accusations of racism, Health Ministry instructs HMOs not to automatically renew prescriptions for Depo-Provera

Newly arrived Ethiopian immigrants at Ben Gurion Airport in December 2011 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)
Newly arrived Ethiopian immigrants at Ben Gurion Airport in December 2011 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash90)

The director-general of the Health Ministry, Dr. Roni Gamzo, has instructed Israel’s four HMOs to institute new standards when renewing prescriptions of the birth-control drug Depo-Provera for new immigrants from Ethiopia, and any other country, Haaretz reported on Sunday.

In early December, investigative reporter Gal Gabbai revealed on her television show “Vacuum” that many women who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia were coerced to receive the shots. Many women interviewed by Gabbai said that Israeli representatives from the Joint Distribution Committee (JDC) and the Health Ministry at the transit camps in Ethiopia told them that they had to receive the shots if they wanted to immigrate to Israel and continue receiving medical treatment from the JDC.

While Gamzo stopped short of admitting any wrongdoing by the ministry, he did acknowledge the allegation that many women were given shots of the drug without fully understanding its effects.

Two weeks ago, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) sent a letter to the Health Ministry citing serious suspicions it was conducting “a policy intended to control and monitor fertility” among the Ethiopian community. Furthermore, ACRI said that the data reported in the media indicate an attitude toward the Ethiopian community that is “paternalistic, arrogant and racist” and “severely limits the freedom of Ethiopian women to choose the method of birth control most suitable for themselves.”

Last week, Gamzo wrote to the HMOs that, without “taking a position or determining any facts based on the allegations,” he instructed that doctors not renew Depo-Provera prescriptions for either Ethiopian women or those of any other nationality “if there is any concern that they do not understand the implications of the treatment.”

Gamzo said that the drug can be given to women who specifically request birth control and who understand all the side-effects of this method as opposed to other options.

“Of course,” Gamzo added, “this must be approached in a manner that is appropriate to the culture [of the women] and with the help of Ethiopian mediators and/or medical translators when necessary.”

A hidden camera followed an Ethiopian woman to a local health clinic during Gabbai’s filming of the exposé on “Vacuum” in December. The footage showed a nurse explaining to the woman that this shot is given “primarily to Ethiopian women 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.”

Israeli authorities at the time denied all of the allegations. However, Gabbai revealed an official letter that she uncovered from the Health Ministry to Dr. Rick Hodes, the director of the JDC Medical Programs in Ethiopia. The letter praised the doctor’s work, noting that whereas fewer than 5% of Ethiopians use any form of birth control, Hodes achieved a rate of 30% among the patients he treated.

David Yaso, director of the Immigration Ministry’s Ethiopian Department, flatly denied that women were told that in Israel they were forbidden to have large families and were coerced to take contraceptive shots against their will.

Professor Daniel Seidman, chairman of the Israel Society for Contraception and Sexual Health, told Gabbai that he does not believe the Ethiopian immigrants have been “singled out” by Israeli authorities in a concerted effort to lower their birth rate. Rather, he offered two possible explanations for the significant drop in the Ethiopian birth rate: Either the women are better educated now and are looking to have careers, not children; or they recognize that, with limited finances, they cannot afford to support large families.

Haaretz reported that in response to the program, the JDC referred to the women’s claims as “nonsense.” The JDC statement said that “the medical team does not intervene directly or indirectly in economic aid and the Joint is not involved in the aliyah procedures.”

The statement added that Depo-Provera is used because studies show that it “is the most popular form of birth control among women in Ethiopia.”

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed