Forced Birth Control in Israel Shows Population Control Can Violate Human Rights


A new report released by a women's rights organization reveals that about 30 Jewish Ethiopian women immigrating to Israel were allowed to enter the country only if they received contraceptive shots of a drug called Depo-Provera. Hedva Eyal, the author of the report, said that these methods of sterilization are used to limit a growing minority population that is "black and poor." Three months earlier on an Israeli television program, Ethiopian immigrants testified that they were coerced into taking injections of Depo-Provera while in Ethiopian transit camps en route to Israel. Some were told that the shots were inoculations against suffering for women who frequently give birth. Many were ignorant of the drug's contraceptive effects.

On January 28th, in response to mounting complaints and criticism, the director of the Ministry of Health in Israel, Roni Gamzo, instructed gynecologists not to inject women with Depo-Provera without their consent or knowledge of the drug's effects.

But the practice of controlling reproduction is not isolated to Israel. Population control takes various forms in different countries, but advocates must continually monitor governmental efforts to make sure they do not violate the human rights of citizens.

Compulsory sterilization of immigrant populations and people with learning disabilities was not an uncommon practice in the United States and Europe in the 20th century. Unfortunately, women's reproductive rights continue to be violated in many parts of the world due to the social policies of sovereign states.

In fact, the most sensational cases in recent history have come from China. Last June, a photograph of Feng Jianmei lying next to her aborted 7-month-old fetus has sparked debate about the PRC's family planning practices. Feng and her husband could not afford to pay the 40,000 yuan ($6300) fine to county officials for carrying a second child, so several days after they received the warning for the impending deadline to pay the debt, she was taken to a rented house and later given an injection which induced an early labor that was fatal for her unborn child.

Besides fostering blatant disregard for human rights, population control will have devastating economic consequences. Wang Feng, with the Brookings-Tsinghua Center for Public Policy in Beijing, thinks that the one-child policy should have been phased out 10 years ago. The policy, enacted in 1979, has long achieved its goal of population reduction. Academics now fear that rapidly aging workers and an insufficient number of young people to replace them will result in the decline of productivity. The elderly population in China will double from 180 million to 360 million by the year 2030. This could mean a rise in health care costs, which would result in a greater strain on the central government's budget.

However, low fertility rates contributing to possible economic decline are not limited to China. For a number of reasons not necessarily associated with population control such as women marrying later, countries such as Italy, Germany, Japan, and Russia will see their old increase while their young decrease. In an interview with NPR, British environmental consultant Fred Pierce observes that "the Japanese economy's lack of growth in the last couple of decades may be traceable to its aging population."

The answer to such a complex problem may lie in education. A researcher for the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis in Austria, Vegard Skirbekk notes, "Seniors in the U.S. and Western Europe are healthier and more productive than their counterparts in countries such as Mexico, China and India, largely due to better education." However, since concentrated schooling generally occurs when one is young, we should invest our resources now in order to sustain economic growth in the future.

While the proposal above should be heeded, it is in no way a substitute for respecting human dignity and rights. Women and their families should not have to fear for their lives if they have a second child, nor should they lose their ability to bear a child without their fully-informed consent.

Although advocacy is often considered a difficult and thankless task, we could start by being more vigorous in our demands for government transparency and accountability. This, after all, is what worked in the case of the Ethiopian immigrants. The Israeli health director issued the directive to stop injecting the contraceptive after women's rights and immigrants' groups voiced their indignation.