The Big Lie: Involuntary Sterilization of Black Ethiopian Women

While Israel has never practiced involuntary sterilization, many other countries have.

“I am aware that Israel has sterilized black African women without their consent.”

I heard this from a black American university professor who should have known better. It wasn’t the first time I had heard this accusation.

The narrative from many so-called American progressives is that Israel is a racist state. Many Israel-haters have jumped on this accusation of forced sterilization as proof of Israel’s racism.

But what is the truth?

What Really Happened

From 1977 to 1991 Israel rescued thousands of black Ethiopian Jews and resettled them in Israel; more immigrated to Israel in the 2000s. Israel granted them citizenship and took steps to integrate them into Israeli society. Today the population of Ethiopian Jews in Israel is 135,000-strong, with many of them born in Israel.

In the late 2000s, reports appeared in the Israeli media that claimed that injections of Depo-Provera, a long-acting contraceptive, had been forced on hundreds of female Ethiopian immigrants. The contraceptive effects of Depo-Provera last only for about three months. A small number of Ethiopian women received the Depo-Provera injections every three months for a while. An Israeli TV reporter asked a group of women who had received these injections if they were able to conceive after stopping the drug. All said they were.

Israel-haters who say that Israel tricked black Ethiopian women into being sterilized are wildly wrong. At worst, these women received temporary birth control medication.

But were they appropriately informed about the nature of the injections they received?

Some of the Ethiopian women received these injections in transit camps in Ethiopia as they awaited transport to Israel. Many of the injections were administered by non-Israelis. Others received the injections in medical clinics after they arrived in Israel.

A small group of these Ethiopian women reported they had been tricked or coerced into accepting these injections. In 2016, Israel’s State Controller conducted an investigation into the matter. The investigation concluded that the women had not been coerced into taking the injections. But doubts remained. Critics of the investigation pointed out that the State Controller had not heard testimony from the alleged victims, and that questions remained about the role of the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, the organization that had cared for these women in the Ethiopian transit camps.

Years after this incident we know that no Israeli government agency or private clinic sterilized patients against their will. For the Ethiopian women who received temporary birth control injections in Israeli clinics, it is hard to judge whether there was an element of coercion. The women who received the injections were uneducated and did not speak Hebrew—-so it is not surprising that miscommunication occurred in some cases. In the transit camps some women may have felt obliged to please their caregivers in order to smooth their journey through the immigration process. Once in Israel, medical personnel may have administered the shots based on the medical records from the transit camp.

What We Know

It is possible that some clinic personnel applied inappropriate pressure on the Ethiopian women or failed to take the time to inform them adequately about Depo-Provera. If so, this is a case of poor medical care, not a racist plan to sterilize black women.

The charge of involuntary sterilization makes no sense. If Israel wanted to limit the Jewish Ethiopian population why did they spend millions of dollars to bring tens of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel in the first place? And why did they then provide the new immigrants with housing, free health care, and schooling for their children? And if Israel’s aim was population control, why did they extend the state’s generous child welfare allowances to these Ethiopian immigrants, a practice that encourages large families? The final proof of the absurdity of the forced sterilization charge is that, since their immigration, the Ethiopian population of Israel has grown in leaps and bounds.

Israel’s operations to bring Ethiopian Jews to Israel had its intended success.

The irony in all this is that, while Israel has never practiced involuntary sterilization, many other countries have. The examples below are just a small sampling.1

A World Tour of Population Control Crimes

Bangladesh

Bangladesh has a long-standing policy of sterilizing impoverished men and women under coercive or other questionable circumstances. For example, in 1978 alone it is estimated that about 50,000 men and women were sterilized each month. One population control expert described Bangladesh’s sterilization program as “the largest in the world.” The Bangladesh government engaged in questionable practices, such as offering cash and clothing in exchange for sterilization. In one program the government granted food subsidies only to women who could produce a certificate confirming they had their tubes tied. Reports emerged that many women who had to undergo abdominal surgeries were sterilized without their knowledge.

The World Bank has pressured some developing countries to institute population control programs. Because these countries depend on World Bank loans, this requirement is an incentive for poor countries to implement coercive or deceptive sterilization practices.

A disturbing new development is the Bangladeshi plan to introduce sterilization programs in its densely-packed Rohingya refugee camps. These refugees live under desperate conditions; thus they may not be in a position to make a free choice about sterilization.

Coercive and forced sterilization practices are not limited to third world countries like Bangladesh.

Canada

Compulsory sterilization was practiced in the Canadian provinces of Alberta and British Columbia well into the 20th century. Over 800 Canadians who were sterilized under Alberta’s Sexual Sterilization Act of 1928 have received government compensation totaling C$142 million. Alberta’s Sterilization Act was not repealed until 1972. In 1995 the Alberta provincial government apologized for the forced sterilization of over 2,800 people.

Last year (2017) a group of native women were forced to agree to sterilization as a condition for being allowed to see their newborn babies. Sixty women have filed a lawsuit in this case.

China

Recently, human rights groups such as Amnesty International have criticized China for compulsory sterilization practices. At the national level, China has passed laws that protect individual rights in family planning. But local abuses have occurred. For example, in Guangdong Province, local authorities initiated a large sterilization drive called the Iron Fist Campaign. Critics accused the government of using coercive methods such as arresting elderly family members. Almost 10,000 women were sterilized under this campaign. The campaign had racist overtones: It may have been intended to limit the non-Han Chinese population.

The Chinese national government acknowledged abuses in the family planning program in Linyi city of Shandong Province. In this locale there were charges of forced abortions and sterilizations.

Germany

The Nazi regime that came to power in Germany in 1933 became notorious for its promotion of “racial purity” and for its widespread use of forced sterilization.

One of the Nazi regime’s first acts was to pass the Law for the Prevention of Hereditarily Diseased Offspring. This legislation set up over 200 eugenic courts. German doctors were required to report all patients suspected of “genetic defects” to these courts. The courts reviewed patients’ medical records. Those deemed genetically damaged were forcibly sterilized.

Under this program, a wide range of individuals were involuntarily sterilized, including many whose conditions were not genetically-based. The program targeted patients who were intellectually disabled, mentally ill, epileptic, blind, deaf, physically deformed, had Huntington’s Disease, were alcoholic, or were offspring of “mixed racial heritage.” By the end of the Second World War, over 400,000 people were forced to submit to sterilization under this law. Under a related “euthanasia” program, German authorities killed an additional 70,000 patients.

United States

Between 2006 and 2010, 148 women prisoners in California state prisons were sterilized without their consent.

Peru

In the last decade of the twentieth century, Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori created a National Population Program that began an era of forced sterilizations—-under the guise of public health. The following year the World Health Organization congratulated Fujimori on the success of the program in controlling population growth.

A 2002 report by Peru’s Health Ministry documented that between 1995 and 2000, over 300,000 women were sterilized and over 25,000 men submitted to vasectomies. These sterilization programs were directed at indigenous people living in impoverished areas, in an effort to weaken indigenous groups that were in conflict with the government. In recent years the Peruvian government has taken steps to reduce abuses in these programs.

A Disingenuous Magnifying Glass

There are many Israel-haters in the world today. These haters take a magnifying glass to Israel. They ferret out every hint of human rights abuse, they distort and exaggerate the evidence, ignore context essential to understanding Israel’s actions, and engage in out-and-out lies. At the same time, these Israel-haters turn a blind eye to the many countries in the world that are true human rights abusers.

False accusations of compulsory sterilization by Israeli clinics is but one manifestation of this phenomenon.

Israel is like the younger child who behaves well but is perpetually blamed by his parents for the misdeeds of his older brothers. Eventually Mom and Dad figure out what is going on.

Hopefully the human rights community and the wider world will figure out the true story about Israel and the slanders against it.

Footnotes

  1. The following discussion is drawn from: Compulsory Sterilization. Wikipedia. Retrieved November 23, 2018 from:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Compulsory_sterilization

About the Author
The author is a life-long Zionist and advocate for Israel. He believes that a strong Jewish state is invaluable, not only to Jews, but to the world-wide cause of democracy and human rights. Dr. Berger earned a PhD in Social Welfare from the University of Wisconsin-Madison and has twenty-seven years of teaching experience. He has authored and co-authored three books as well as over 45 professional journal articles and book chapters. His parents were Holocaust survivors. Dr. Berger also blogs at: https://realbulletpoints.wordpress.com/
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