Open Zion

03.12.13

How To Put The Ethiopian-Israeli Birth Control Controversy To Rest

Last week Haaretz corrected its reporting of a story I covered in these pages: Ethiopian-Israeli women have been saying for years that they’ve been injected with Depo-Provera (long-acting birth control) by state-mandated health providers without their informed consent. That story—recently investigated by Israeli television and carried by many other sources in addition to Haaretz—led to global controversy, including scattered and unfounded accusations of sterilization and/or genocide.

Under a headline that read “Israel admits Ethiopian women were given birth control shots,” Haaretz wrote on January 27 that:

A government official has for the first time acknowledged the practice of injecting women of Ethiopian origin with the long-acting contraceptive Depo-Provera. Health Ministry Director General Prof. Roni Gamzu has instructed the four health maintenance organizations to stop the practice as a matter of course.

The next day, I wrote, “On Sunday it was reported that Israel has finally admitted to systematically depressing the fertility of the Ethiopian immigrant community…”

Haaretz followed up on February 28, reporting that the Health Ministry was launching an investigation into the practice, and last Wednesday appended a correction to that piece:

The original version [of this story] failed to state that [Gamzu’s] instruction was issued "without taking a stand or determining facts about allegations that had been made."

The upshot of this is that Haaretz made a mistake in its January report, one which I then replicated: The state didn’t “admit,” nor did a government official “acknowledge,” any responsibility for the allegations being made by the immigrants.

It is of course important to correct the impression that Israel acknowledged playing a role in this story, and as such, whether these events were systematic or haphazard is as yet unclear. If investigation reveals that there was no systematic effort, I will happily say so. If I’d known that the government had not acknowledged playing a role, I would’ve written my own post a little differently: “The government has acknowledged no fault, but activists and immigrants report that…,” for example.

The more important news here, though, is the actual reason for Haaretz’s follow-up—the Health Ministry investigation:

The [investigation] will check the reports that the women were given Depo-Provera shots to prevent pregnancy—often against their will and without being informed of potential side effects—in what was an allegedly deliberate effort to reduce births in the Ethiopian immigrant community.

…The committee is being set up at the instruction of [Deputy Health Minister] Litzman, who had earlier denied that the phenomenon existed, after it was revealed by an Educational Television documentary by journalist Gal Gabai in early December.

Some followers of news out of Israel have seen last Wednesday’s correction as a vindication, suggesting that the entire story can now be seen as little more than an anti-Israel smear advanced by bad actors, and that potentially irreversible damage has been done to Israel because Haaretz wrote that a government office admitted to something to which it did not, in fact, admit—as if an official admission of culpability is the only valid source for the information at hand.

What these people are failing to note is that the source of the controversy is not one mistaken mischaracterization by one news source—the source of the controversy is the women themselves. As I wrote in January, many, many Ethiopian-Israeli women report being threatened or lied to about the Depo-Provera injections: “We didn’t want it,” one woman is quoted as saying in the February 28 article. “We refused and objected. We said we didn’t want to.” (More such comments can be seen here, here and here).

Thus, while accuracy is always important in reporting and Haaretz was right to issue the correction, what we really have here is a classic case of vulnerable citizens complaining of governmental abuse, their government denying that abuse, and a group of observers privileging the government’s version of events over that of the people complaining. It is precisely these kinds of stories that we pay journalists to cover; that’s why we call journalism the fourth estate.

We are right, of course, to take issue with those who characterized this story as one of forced sterilization or genocide. Controlling a woman’s fertility with long-term contraceptive drugs without informed consent is a terrible thing, but it’s a long way from forced sterilization.

But unless and until it’s established that the immigrants in question are lying, I will listen to the many women who say they were frightened or misled into accepting the administration of Depo-Provera. It’s my opinion that the stories of real women’s lives damaged by the acts of a few people in positions of power are more important than one newspaper’s (corrected) mistake.

If Israel wants to see this controversy put to rest, it will investigate these deeply troubling allegations thoroughly, and address any issues raised with transparency.