At a press conference January 13, 1994, Wyeth-Ayerst Canada announced plans to start distribution of the controversial. Norplant birth control device in March, 1994. Six paper matchstick size capsules, 35 mm long x 2.4 mm in diameter, are placed under the skin of the upper arm of the woman, steadily releasing a synthetic hormone to inhibit ovulation. The “contraceptive” implant was developed by the Population Council, a research organization based in New York, which spent $20 million on the project. Canada’s International Development Research council also helped with funding. The Population Council claims this surgically placed device safely prevents pregnancy for up to 5 years. At present, Norplant has been approved for use in approximately two dozen countries, mostly third world. Clinical studies are being done in another fifty.
Worldwide, 2 million women have used the implants, which work along the same lines as oral contraceptive. As well as inhibiting ovulation in at least half of the menstrual cycles, it thickens cervical mucus and makes it hostile to sperm. In addition, the drug used, levonorgestrel, alters the lining of the uterus so that it will not accept implantation of a “fertilized egg.” In other words, it can act as an abortifacient. It should also be noted that pregnancy rates for Norplant users are higher for heavier women (154 lbs and over) than for lighter women, which indicates that the contraceptive is far from perfect.
The Health Risks
Studies reported significant side effects, particularly abnormal bleeding during the first 6 months. According to a report written by Dr. Robert London of Baltimore, 28% of users experienced prolonged bleeding and 17% experienced spotting during the first 6 months. Women who have had breast cancer, or a histtpory of the disease in their immediate family, may be advised nnot to use it. Other side effects include the rist of ectopic pregnancies, headaches, enlargement of the ovaries, dizziness, nausea, breast tenderness, weight gain or loss, hypertension, expulsion of a capsule, acne, hair loss or hair growth . Removing the capsules after they have been depicted can also be complicated by the growth of scar tissue around the tubes. According to the January 14, 1994 issue of the Globe and Mail, Sunera Thobani, president of National Action Committee on the Status of Women, has serious reservations about Norplant. In addition, Varda Burstyn. a reproductive technologist, voiced concerns, about the possible dangers of strong hormonal interventions to women.
Norplant has been in use n Indonesia since 1981, in spite of stated opposition from the region’s Islamic leaders. Indonesian “family planners” hope to achieve zero population growth by the third decade of the next century, and Norplant appears to be one of the main methods of achieving this aim. They have targeted the goal of getting 3000,000 new Norplant users a year, which has resulted in some rather indiscriminate practices. Little is done to keep track of those women who have been coerced into having the implants (authorities will deny access to agricultural facilities if a woman fails to show a registration card showing that she has been sterilized), meaning that there are hundreds of thousands of “walking time bombs” – women who fail to have the implant removed about 5 years are at serious risk of ectopic pregnancies, which can lead to sudden death by internal hemorrhaging. This callous treatment of women perceived to be “poor” by Western standards goes far beyond any benevolent intentions, if there are any, behind the population control movement. If anything, it does much to show what “first world” family planners really think of “third world” women.
A Tool For Social Engineering?
Despite the generally unknown long term effects ot this slow release hormone, legislators in the U.S. have accepted this new device as a method of controlling costs.
Thirteen states are currently considering Norplant as a part of welfare reform. Maryland’s House of Delegates’ subcommittee has already approved unanimously a plan to hand out a million condoms and provide Norplant to thousands of “poor” women.
The intended result is a substantial reduction of both the “underclass” and the amount of tax-payer money committed to welfare payments. In January, 1993, Paquin School, in working class Baltimore became the first high school in the U.S. to offer the matchstick-sized device to its students. The 300 student body is made up solely of pregnant teens or new mothers.
Melvin Tuggle, a black Baltimore minister thinks making Norplant available at Paquin is genocide (Baltimore’s Paquin School is 90% black). Others share his concern that the issues stretch well beyond poverty to the power of the state to regulate – or coerce – the reproductive choices of women.
Arthur Caplan, a bioethicist at the University of Minnoseto thinks Norplant could be just the beginning of a whole-range of efforts to cut public costs through control of reproduction. In the February 15, 1993 issue of Newsweek magazine, he said “I can see us mandating the generic testing of embryos and fetuses. If we are willing to put Norplant into a 16 year old today to contain costs, them why couldn’t there be a government official saying you can’t be a parent because you’re likely to create a kid whose needs will cost society too much”
Such cost control tactics aren’t far fetched. In his state-of-the-State speech in January, 1993, Maryland Governor Donald Schaefer suggested requiring mothers on welfare to get Norplant or get off the dole. Legislators in other states have proposed legislation requiring Norplant for mothers convicted of felony drug abuse and mothers who have given birth to drug addicted babies. In 1992, Walter Graham, a state senator in Mississippi, proposed that his state require Norplant for women with at least 4 children who wanted any kind of government support! It didn’t pass then, but Graham feels it will eventually.
Some states are considering cash payments of up to $500 to welfare women who agree to have the implant inserted. NOW and the National Black Women’s Health Project oppose such policies. So, too, does the American Civil Liberties Union. Julie Mertus, an attorney with the ACLU Reproductive Freedom Project, says that such a policy “harks back to old-fashioned eugenics, that only the desirable, usually white, middle class people should have children, and that only these people can make their own contraceptive decisions without government intrusion.”
Some poor women using subsidized implants from U.S. clinics and elsewhere report having their requests for removal denied by doctors who told them to wait and see if the side effects subside. “Because of hormonal and surgical problems.” Says Marie Cocking of DES Action Canada, a consumer advocacy group founded in 1983 to serve people exposed to DES, “some American women have taken out lawsuit against the Wyeth-Ayerst company. There are now four cases; one is a class-action suit involving 50 women who claim the pharmaceutical firm did not adequately inform them of potential problems with Norplant removal, or of its side effects. One woman in the lawsuit lost use of her arm. Four others needed the implant removed because they were pregnant, raising concerns about the hormone’s effect on fetuses.”
Planned Parenthood and Norplant
Planned Parenthood, nor surprisingly, supports such efforts. On the more than 100 school based clinics offering birth control that have opened across the U.S. in the last decade, none have been at all-white or suburban middle-class schools. All have been at black, minority or ethnic schools. Planned Parenthood’s founder, Margaret Sanger’s guiding philosophy was eugenics.
She thought that women who had children against the government’s wishes should be either penalized involuntarily. In “Pivot of Civilization” published in 1922, she described her objectives: “More children from the fit, less from the unfit – that is the chief aim of birth control.” Just who were these “unfit”? According to Sanger, “all non-Aryan people” who posed a “great biological menace to the future of civilization.”
She wanted to “cleanse” the genetic pool so North America could produce “a race of thoroughbreds.” Most proponents of Planned Parenthood try to distance themselves from the racist sentiments of their foundress (the Student Council at the University of Toronto last year, after a narrow margin, voted to allow Planned Parenthood to exhibit at the school after certain feminists raised Sanger’s embarrassing ideology, much to the chagrin of Planned Parenthood spokespersons). The reality is, however, that 70% of the clinics operated by Planned Parenthood in the U.S. are in black or Hispanic neighbourhoods.Norplant has also forced Planned Parenthood into a rather ironic position.
Because of the AIDs scare, a few years ago they were promoting “safe sex” via free and readily available condoms in schools. Promoting Norplant will surely lead to less use of condoms. Surely if it is so difficult to get teens to use one form of birth control, it will be impossible to get them to use two.
E ven supporters of Norplant concede this problem. Sexually transmitted diseases, including AIDS, are likely to rise sharply. The Alan Guttmacher Institute itself pointed out in 1993 that the rates of venereal diseases, Chlamydia and herpes are alarmingly high in the U.S.. With their support of Norplant, Planned Parenthood seems more intent on preventing mother-hood than preventing STDs and AIDS. Carl Rowan, a black syndicated columnist, many years ago recognized the failure of birth control initiatives to address the real problems: “The challenge is to illustrate every day that rats, roaches, and hunger pains are viewed by all society as more of a menace than an accidental pregnancy.”
It’s time we all work up to this truth. Inserting hormones in the arms of poor women will not stop violence. We don’t stop poverty by killing the children of the poor. The temptation to find a “quick fix” to society’s problems can only lead to more suffering and subjugation of the women we are supposed to help. Women deserve better.
June Scandiffio is President of the Toronto and Area Right to Life Association.)