February 19, 2013

Did Israel curb immigrant births?

It's unclear why so many Ethiopian women were receiving a long-acting birth control injection.

By TIA GOLDENBERG The Associated Press

(Continued from page 1)

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An Ethiopian Israeli, who asked not to be identified, talked about her life in Jerusalem with the Associated Press. The Ethiopian community has yet to settle fully into the Israeli mainstream, and there are many tensions.

The Associated Press

One immigrant, speaking to the Associated Press, said she was offered both the pill and Depo-Provera injections by employees of the Joint Distribution Committee, a Jewish humanitarian organization that runs a clinic in the Ethiopian city of Gondar. She said she felt pressured to take a contraceptive -- and chose the injection because she thought the pill would be more expensive.

The 42-year-old Jerusalem resident, who works as a cleaner at an assisted-living center for seniors, said she switched to the pill once the side effects became unpleasant, about three years after she started the injections.

Today, she and two other women are suing their HMO, alleging they were not informed about side effects. She spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue is sensitive within her family and community.

Dr. Rick Hodes, who runs the JDC clinic in Gondar, said the group offers family planning as part of the U.N.'s Millennium Development Goals, one of which is universal access to reproductive health.

"I do not know why offering family planning would be considered negative or even controversial, especially since our JDC program is 100 percent voluntary," he said in an email. The clinic, like others in Africa that are internationally funded, offers both the pill and the injection.

Israeli officials deny there was ever a plan to reduce the Ethiopian birth rate. Yet critics say the Health Ministry directive last month ordering HMOs to stop prescribing the injection to Ethiopian women was an admission of guilt.

"There was a clear trend to give these women Depo-Provera," said Hedva Eyal, who wrote a 2009 report on the matter for the women's activist group Isha L'Isha. "The result is control over their fertility, which means fewer children."

Eyal and others point to official figures that show the Ethiopian birth rate plummeted from 4.6 children in 1996 to 2.5 in 2011 -- lower than the Israeli average of 2.9.

Molla, the Ethiopian immigrant and former legislator, said the decline is likely due to the realities of everyday life in Israel, where it can be difficult to have as many children as in Ethiopia.

The Depo-Provera affair is just the latest clash Israel has had with its Ethiopian community.

Last year, Israel's rabbis began working to phase out the community's clergy, whose religious practices are at odds with the rabbinate's Orthodox Judaism, sparking large protests. In the late 1990s, it was discovered that Israel's health services were throwing out Ethiopian-Israelis' blood donations over fears of diseases contracted in Africa.

Dasa hopes his group's investigation will provide answers -- and lessons for the future.

"We as a state should be learning from the mistakes of the past," he said, "and shouldn't make the same ones again."


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