By Jeffrey Heller
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel's Health Ministry has ordered doctors to review how they prescribe a birth control drug, after accusations it was being used to control the population of Ethiopian immigrants.
Suspicions that Ethiopian women had been coerced into receiving Depo-Provera arose in Israeli media a few years ago and most recently in a TV documentary linking the community's falling birthrate to over-prescription of the injectable contraceptive.
After a civil rights group accused it of racism, the health ministry ordered doctors not to renew Depo-Provera prescriptions unless they were convinced patients understood the ramifications, according to a letter from the ministry posted on the group's website on Monday.
Ministry Director-General Roni Gamzu said the decision did not imply he accepted the allegations by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI).
In a letter to Gamzu two weeks ago, ACRI said "the sweeping use of Depo-Provera among Ethiopian women raises heavy suspicions that we are talking about a deliberate policy to control and monitor fertility among this community.
"The data ... point to a paternalistic, haughty and racist attitude that limits considerably the freedom of Ethiopian immigrants to choose the birth control that is medically suitable for them."
ACRI said statistics from a major Israeli health provider showed that it had administered Depo-Provera injections to 5,000 women in 2008, 57 percent of whom were Ethiopian.
Israel has denied any policy to curb the birthrate among the 100,000 Ethiopian Jews who have moved to Israel since chief rabbis determined in 1973 that the community had biblical roots.
Some Ethiopian Jews have made it into Israel's parliament and officer ranks in the military, but complaints of discrimination in schooling and housing are common.
According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which approved Depo-Provera in 1992, its prolonged use may reduce bone density and that it should only be used for longer than two years if other birth control methods prove inadequate.
The documentary, broadcast on Israeli Educational Television, shows a nurse saying on a hidden camera that Ethiopian women were given Depo-Provera because they "don't understand anything" and would forget to take birth control pills.
Rick Hodes, medical director in Ethiopia for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a non-governmental organization that helps to facilitate immigration to Israel, denied the accusation that women are coerced into receiving the injections before leaving for the Jewish state.
"Injectable drugs have always been the most popular form of birth control in Ethiopia, as well as among women in our program," Hodes wrote on Twitter.
"Our family program is, and always (has) been, purely voluntary."
(Editing by Robin Pomeroy)