7. Norpland and Human Lab Experiments in Third World Lead to Forced Use in the United States

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

Sources: MS., Title: “The Misuses of Norplant: Who Gets Stuck?,” Date: November/December 1996, Author: Jennifer Washburn; WASHINGTON FREE PRESS, Title: “Norplant and the Dark Side of the Law,” Date: March/April 1997, Author: Rebecca Kavoussi; HUMAN EVENTS, Title: “BBC Documentary Claims That U.S. Foreign Aid Funded Norplant Testing On Uninformed Third World Women,” Date: May 16, 1997, Author: Joseph D’Agostino

SSU Censored Researchers: Carolyn Williams and Katie Sims
SSU Faculty Evaluator: Jeanette Koshar, Ph.D.

Low-income women in the United States and in the Third World have been the unwitting targets of a U.S. policy to control birth rates. Despite continuous reports of debilitating effects of the drug Norplant, women here and in the Third World, who have received the implantable contraceptive, have had difficulty making their complaints heard, and in some instances have been deceived, according to our resources. Norplant is a set of six plastic cylinders containing a synthetic version of a female hormone. It is intended to prevent pregnancy for five years. Surgery is required for removal—at a cost far beyond the reach of low-income women, regardless of their nationality, if the removal is not subsidized.

Jennifer Washburn’s Ms. article focuses on Medicaid rejection of Norplant removals for low-income women prior to the standard five-year period, even when side effects are chronic. In the U.S. State Medicaid agencies, for example, often generously cover the cost of Norplant insertion but don’t cover removal before the full five years. Although Medicaid policy may cover early removal “when determined ‘medically necessary,”’ medical necessity is determined by the provider and the Medicaid agency, not the patient.

Journalist Rebecca Kavoussi reports in her Washington Free Press article that the reproductive rights of women addicted to drugs or alcohol have once again become the focus of U.S. legislation. Senate Bill 5278, now under consideration in the state of Washington, would require “involuntary use of long-term pharmaceutical birth control” (Norplant) for women who give birth to drug-addicted babies. Under this proposal, a woman who gives birth to a drug-addicted baby would get two chances—the first voluntary, the second mandatory—to undergo drug treatment and counseling. Upon the birth of a third drug-addicted child, the state would force the mother to undergo surgery to insert the Norplant contraceptive.

Similarly, Norplant is figuring in reproductive rights issues and legislative policies worldwide as well. In his May 1997 Human Events article, Joseph D’Agostino reports on the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) documentary The Human Laboratory, which accused the U.S. Agency for International Development (U.S.AID) of acting in conjunction with the Population Council of New York City, to use uninformed women in Bangladesh, Haiti, and the Philippines for Norplant tests. Many of these women were subjects in pre-injection drug trials that began in 1985 in Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest countries.

The BBC documentary contained interviews with women who complained of debilitating side effects from Norplant, but who were rebuffed when they asked to have the implants removed. These women stated that they had been told that the drug was safe and not experimental. Implantation was free.

One woman interviewed in the documentary said that after implantation, suddenly her body became weak, and that she couldn’t get up, look after her children, or cook. Other women reported similar problems, stating that when they asked to have Norplant removed, they were told it would ruin the study. “I went to the clinic as often as twice a week,” one woman said, “but they said, ‘This thing we put in your arm costs 5,000 takas. We’ll not remove it unless you pay this money.”’ The narrator of the documentary, Farida Akhter, recounted that when another woman begged to have the implant removed—saying, “I’m dying, please help me get it out”—she was told, “Okay, when you die, inform us, we’ll get it out of your body.”

The documentary asserts that the women should have been told that the pre-introductory trials were to assess the drug’s safety, efficiency, and acceptability. Now, says the BBC, many women who were used in the trials are suffering from eyesight disorders, strokes, persistent bleeding, and other side effects. However, the Norplant saga appears to have global political implications that interfere with reasonable resolution. According to the documentary, the U.S. govern-ment considers global population control a “national security issue” and has increased U.S. population control efforts around the world.

Norplant side effects have resulted in over 400 lawsuits being filed against Wyeth-Ayerst, the maker of Norplant. These lawsuits include class actions representing over 50,000 women which are only just now making their way to the courts.

UPDATE BV AUTHOR JENNIFER WASH-BURN: “When Norplant hit the market in 1990, a flurry of state legislation was proposed offering AFDC recipients monetary incentives (anywhere from $200 to $700) to use Norplant. At the same time, state Medicaid agencies were crafting policies that deny coverage for early Norplant removal (before five years) even if a woman was experiencing chronic side effects, policies that still exist in many states. The mainstream media, to my knowledge, never picked up on this story, and rarely, if ever, covers issues affecting the health and reproductive rights of low-income women. Norplant usage has, however, declined dramatically in all populations largely due to the negative publicity generated from the lawsuits involving some 50,000 women which are only just now making their way to the courts.

“Since my story came out, ‘child exclusion laws’ that deny additional benefits to children born to mothers on welfare have spread to at least 21 states. The new federal welfare ‘reform’ law permits states to punitively exclude benefits to these children, despite the fact that two recent studies in New Jersey and Arkansas—the first two states to implement ‘family caps’ as they are euphemistically called—found no difference in birth rates between women denied benefits and those eligible for them. At the same time that welfare recipients are being asked to achieve self-sufficiency in five years or less, 34 states continue to allow Medicaid coverage of abortion services only in cases of rape, incest, or life en- dangerment. Meanwhile, the new law encourages competition among states for `illegitimacy bonuses,’ and dedicates an extraordinary $50 million for ‘abstinence-only’ education—which may not be combined with traditional sex education programs that teach about both abstinence and contraception. Many fear that this will wipe out more encompassing sex education programs from schools, hardly a viable solution for sexually active women of any class who want control over their reproduction as well as their lives.”

UPDATE BY AUTHOR REBECCA KAVOUSSI: “Although Washington state Senate Bill 5278 will take effect July 1, 1998 (if passed), there has been no mainstream media coverage of its year-long journey through the Washington state legislature. “Technology is commonly equated with progress, and progress is believed to be positive. Accordingly, our culture seems to view advances in reproductive technology as indicators of more broad and extensive advances in freedom and autonomy for women as a group. In the case of legislation like this, however, we glimpse the stunning negative potential of technology when it is called upon to bring order to emotionally and politically loaded situations.

“In the most updated version of the bill, women targeted for mandatory contraception also face the termination of parental rights. While the writers of the bill suggest no funding for improving the resources available to pregnant addicts, they are considering extending Senate Bill 5278 to include mothers of children born with fetal alcohol syndrome.

“Both Lexis-Nexis and the Web offer the full text of legislation at state and national levels. In her book, At Women’s Expense: State Power and the Politics of Fetal Rights (Harvard University Press, 1993), Cynthia Daniels details the relationship between reproductive technology and the state.”

UPDATE BY AUTHOR JOSEPH D’AGOSTINO: “Two crucial concerns intersect in the story of Western organizations promoting population control in the Third World at all costs: the unspoken belief that the lives of Third World people are less valuable than those of Westerners, and the perversion of women’s sacred reproductive rights. Despite the well-respected BBC’s report, almost nothing has appeared in the American mainstream media on the experimental use of Norplant on unsuspecting Third World women. All that I could find was a two sentence mention in passing by a guest on NPR’s Talk of the Nation on February 5, 1997, and an article by Mount Holyoke College Professor of Women’s Studies Asoka Bandarage in the July 14, 1997 Christian Science Monitor.

“The Population Council continues to insist Norplant is safe, as does the World Health Organization and U.S. AID. But the FDA has kept open the petition of the Population Research Institute (PRI) to decertify the device. Class action suits against the device are pending.”