17. Norplant: Birth Control or Social Control?
Source: EXTRA!, 130 W. 25th Street New York, NY 10001, Date:
July/August 1992, Title: "Norplant: Birth Control or Control of Poor Women?,"
Authors: Ethel Long-Scott and Judy Southworth
SSU Censored Researcher Judy
SYNOPSIS: If we are to believe the national mainstream media
and some politicians, Norplant, the implantable birth control device
of the Nineties, is quickly becoming society's cure-all birth control
solution. With the media touting effectiveness and safety and politicians
proposing giveaways and mandatory implantation as a solution to unwanted
pregnancy, welfare and child abuse, Norplant seems to be a perfect solution
for personal convenience and social control.
is produced in the form of birth control capsules that are implanted for five
years in a woman's upper arm. Promoted as a safe and effective method of birth
control, Norplant was approved by the Food and Drug Administration in December
The appeal of easy, no-maintenance birth control was ballyhooed in
the press with such approving headlines as "A Sound Implant" (San Francisco
Chronicle) and "A Matter of Choice" (Newsday). The press has for the
most part ignored questions posed by doctors and women's organizations and instead
touted pharmaceutical promotional statements of "effectiveness and choice,"
while safety and sterilization considerations went unexplored.
chair of the Health Care Committee of the Women's Economic Agenda Project (WEAP),
charges that Norplant is unsafe and not adequately tested. "Women using Norplant
in Brazil suffered central nervous system damage, prolonged menstrual bleeding
and other serious side effects," she reports.
The device is even more
controversial since the dangers go beyond health risks. Legislators in Hawaii,
Kansas, Louisiana, Ohio, South Carolina and California are advocating mandatory
implantation for some drug abusers and welfare mothers. California Governor Pete
Wilson has proposed providing free Norplant to women receiving Medi-Cal, that
state's low-income health program. WEAP called these proposals "a throwback
to the days when California led the country in performing forced sterilization
on poor women."
While the American Medical Association (AMA) condemned
the court-ordered use of Norplant for women convicted of child abuse and questioned
state proposals to pay women on welfare to use Norplant, its criticism has been
ignored by the press.
The National Black Women's Health Project warns that
"with the availability of Norplant, we are witnessing the aggressive imposition
of punitive birth control measures on poor women and women of color, just as sterilization
and other so-called population control measures have been forced upon African-American
women and new, immigrants in this country historically, and continue to be imposed
on women of color in developing or so-called Third World countries around the
In denouncing court-imposed use of Norplant, the AMA points
out that for more than 200 years, the "common law has considered any medical
treatment performed without a patient's consent to constitute a battery."
the media continue to promote the drug's effectiveness while downplaying its potentially
dangerous side effects and ignoring its human rights implications.
COMMENTS: Investigative author Ethel Long-Scott says the mass
media did not give "sufficient or appropriate exposure to a surgically
implanted birth control drug with unknown long-term side effects and
with such incredible potential for social control. All the news coverage
not only gave the pharmaceutical industry's view that it was safe, but
implied through tone and choice of comments that it could be a solution
to the growing problem of increasing numbers of poor children. They
also implied that because it might curb the birth rate of poor women,
which the media sees as a great social problem, we needn't be as critical
about its safety. The media generally didn't bring up the widespread
negative experience of women in Brazil, who found Norplant caused such
great suffering and harm that they repulsed it.
"One of the most responsible things the media can do is alert
people to what is really going on, beneath the surface of public policy.
Norplant and its predecessors like just-approved Depo-Provera, are being
publicly cloaked in the mantle of an advance in reproductive rights.
In playing up that one aspect of these drugs above all others, the media
pushes them as 'good' tools to carry out forced sterilization and restrict
the reproductive rights of poor women. The Philadelphia Inquirer editorial
suggesting Norplant as a solution to poverty is just the most blatant
example of the attitude that underlies most media coverage. History
gives us horrible examples of the havoc wreaked by societies that try
to fix problems by eliminating the people they affect, rather than eliminating
the causes of the problems.
"The context in which the media place their discussions of Norplant
restricts societal choices and the seeking of truth because it sends
the following sinister message: 'Poor people are not functioning in
a responsible manner. They are to blame for their own plight, as well
as for some of our problems, like taxes that are too high, and we must
make better decisions for them. If our economic system is not able to
provide full employment, feed its people and keep its women and children
safe and sheltered, out of doorways and away from random violence, it
is not society's fault. We as a society do not have an obligation to
make sure that women and children are able to have a roof over their
heads, minimal nutrition, decent health care and the basics for a dignified
life. It is not up to society to make sure its benefits and protections
work for the poor as well as for the rich. That is the responsibility
of these impoverished individuals and their families, and if they can't
do the job, we should keep them from bringing into the world more people
who might possibly turn out like themselves.'
"Put most directly, the
interests being served (by the limited coverage given the dangers of Norplant)
are those of the middle, upper and ruling classes. The pharmaceutical industry
obviously benefits in no small way from the media focus on the potential benefits
of its products, rather than the harm they do, both demonstrated and potential.
The people in power benefit from this attitude of, `if there's a problem, blame
the victims.' There is a lack of sharp questioning about why the richest society
the world has ever known must tolerate millions of unemployed, unconscionable
lawlessness in the name of law enforcement, the criminal rape of low income neighborhoods
by all sorts of unchecked predatory interests and rampant and escalating poverty.
And that lack of sharp questioning, even where examples make this obvious, as
with Norplant, prevents us as a society from debating and putting into place real
corrections for the problems.
"In the United States and all over the world we are facing cataclysmic
changes. Huge new societal questions are presented by the increasing
replacement of workers by computerized machines and the structural unemployment
that results. If the media, by refusing to dig deeply enough into important
issues, continue to promote rationalities and ideologies that support
throwing people away, that support lying about or ignoring the mounting
numbers of homeless and hungry souls in every city and town throughout
our country, we will go down in history a nation that never understood
why our economic system failed us, just as the leaders of the former
Soviet Union never under-stood why their economic system failed them.
It's no accident that eugenics and sterilization had important roles
in Nazi Germany. Why aren't people who see that issue in Norplant getting
into the media? In the 1990s, will the media continue to play the role
of a half-blind cheerleader for people in positions of money and power
who would rather settle the issue by regulating the behavior of the
poor, even if it takes the imposition of a police state, instead of
attacking the real problems?
"The big issue here, which the mass U.S. media almost universally
fail to understand, is that our country's ideology says the poor, as
well as the rich, are capable of seeing what they need to improve their
lot in life, and going for it. But the way our society functions today
-- with the generous help of the media -- the poor are seen as too ignorant
and undisciplined to know that they need."
even as this is being written in early 1993, it appears that, despite the eloquent
pleas and warnings of journalists like Ethel Long-Scott, Norplant is well on its
way to becoming America's cure-all birth control solution for the 1990s.
serious questions concerning its testing procedures and safety, not to mention
the ominous implications for social control, Norplant is now offered as a form
of birth control by California's Medi-Cal; and on January 10, 1993, CBS News reported
that a low-income Chicago high school has been selected as an experimental study
site for the Norplant device. Nonetheless, the nation's news media have yet to
put the issue on the national agenda for discussion.