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 Bailey

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.

Norplant 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 1990.

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.

Joyce Mills, 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 world."

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."

Nonetheless, 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."

Finally, 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.

Despite 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.