JERUSALEM: Israel's health ministry has warned that immigrants must not be given contraceptives without their proper consent, after allegations that Ethiopian women were coerced into taking contraceptive jabs.
The allegations surfaced in December, when an investigative news programme looking into the declining birth rate of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel uncovered claims that would-be migrants were told they would be refused entry to the Jewish state if they did not take Depo Provera contraceptive injections.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel followed up on the allegations with the health ministry, which this week released a carefully-worded response, warning that contraceptives should not be administered without explicit consent.
The ministry says it is issuing the letter "without taking a position or determining facts regarding the claims that have arisen in this regard."
But it requests doctors "not to renew prescriptions for Depo Provera for women of Ethiopian origin or other women about whom for whatever reason there is concern that they did not understand the implications of the treatment."
It asks doctors to determine with patients "why contraception is being used in general and this one in particular, and if she is asking of her own free will to prevent pregnancy, and if she understands the side-effects."
"Of course this should be done in a culturally appropriate way and if necessary through Ethiopian intermediaries or through medical translation services," it adds.
While the letter contains no admission that Depo Provera was administered without consent, ACRI said it considered the ministry's response an important acknowledgement.
"The way that ACRI regards this letter from the ministry of health is as an important recognition that the phenomenon was indeed occurring," ACRI spokesman Marc Grey told AFP.
According to Israeli media, the birth rate among Israel's Ethiopian immigrant population has fallen by nearly 20 percent in the past decade.
One woman interviewed in the original December television investigation said Ethiopians awaiting transfer to Israel were told those who refused the contraceptive shots would be denied entry, as well as aid and medical care.
"We were afraid... We didn't have a choice. Without them and their aid, we couldn't leave there," Haaretz newspaper quoted the woman as saying.
More than 120,000 Jews of Ethiopian origin live in Israel.
For centuries, Jews in Ethiopia were largely cut off from other Jewish communities, and Israel's religious authorities only belatedly recognised them as members of the faith.
The move sparked two waves of immigration to Israel, in 1984 and 1991, but Ethiopian immigrants have struggled to integrate into Israeli society, despite massive government aid.