Norplant & Depo-Provera
Christina Lopez
volume 20
issue 3
October 1999

The callous, deadly, and racist disregard that the U.S. government and medical and pharmaceutical industries have always shown for the health and reproductive rights of women, especially those who are of color, poor, or young, is back on display with a vengeance. Despite an ample record of appalling side effects, the drugs Norplant and Depo-Provera are being shoved at women who need affordable, effective birth control as if these toxic substances were candy.

In 1992, over the objections of organizations such as the National Black Women's Health Project, the Food and Drug Administration finally gave the green light for use of Depo-Provera in the U.S.

In the early 1970s, the attempted introduction of this injectable contraceptive met with a firestorm of protest from the feminist movement because of its health hazards and the coercive way it was prescribed by public officials (who disregarded the lack of FDA approval). Now, after lobbying intensively for more than 20 years, the giant Upjohn Company has succeeded in getting Depo-Provera on the U.S. market.

Norplant, in contrast, won quick acceptance by the FDA in 1990.

Both drugs are being heavily promoted by HMOs, government-funded programs including Indian Health Services, and Planned Parenthood. Just as with the genocidal history of forced sterilization, the primary targets for these poisons are women of color and poor women.

What the Surgeon General isn't telling you.

Depo-Provera is the brand name for a synthetic hormone, progesterone, which is injected. The progesterone gradually releases into a woman's body, causing changes in the uterine lining that prevent pregnancy. The effect of one shot lasts for about three months.

Norplant also uses progesterone, but encased in small silicone rubber tubes inserted into the arm. Norplant works for up to five years and must be removed surgically. Distributed by Wyeth-Ayerst Laboratories, a subsidiary of American Home Products, Norplant was developed by the Population Council. Based in New York, the council is eugenicist - i.e., it seeks to lower the birth rates of "unfit" women of color, welfare mothers, and women in poor nations.

The side effects of these drugs, about which women are chronically uninformed, are often devastating, sometimes permanent, and have led to deaths.

Norplant users can experience headaches, heavy and continuous menstrual bleeding, blood clots, nausea, excessive weight gain, abdominal pain, breast tenderness, depression, and vision impairment - problems that have prompted more than 400 lawsuits representing 50,000 women nationally. In late August, American Home Products offered paltry cash settlements of $1,500 each to 36,000 of these women. (AHP, which raked in $2.47 billion last year, is also the maker of the disastrous diet treatment fen-phen.)

Depo-Provera can cause most of the above conditions and possibly osteoporosis and cancer as well.

Women of color treated as guinea pigs.

In a superb book, Killing the Black Body, Dorothy Roberts reviews the horrendous ways in which these drugs have been tested and used.

In the 1970s, even as the FDA barred the general marketing of Depo-Provera domestically, programs funded by the U.S. and United Nations continued to experiment with it and promote it in countries such as Thailand, India, Kenya, Colombia, and Mexico. Under South Africa's apartheid regime, Black women were offered free injections; some were threatened with being fired from their jobs if they refused them.

Testing also continued at home. In Atlanta, 7,000 African American women were part of clinical trials, and some were not advised as to just what they were taking.

Meanwhile, the Population Council received millions of dollars in U.S. aid to distribute Norplant, too, throughout developing countries. During the 1980s, a U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) project in Peru, where abortion is illegal, gave women who wanted birth control a "choice" between Norplant and sterilization. In Indonesia, coercive measures such as withholding paychecks and denying jobs are utilized to spread the drug.

Often, the Norplant pushers refuse to remove the implants when women request this. In Bangladesh, one-quarter of the women who sought to have implants taken out had to demand this repeatedly.

And throughout the testing, the many women who reported harmful side effects were mostly ignored.

Racist denial of choice.

Restrictions of all kinds on reproductive freedom are multiplying worldwide. In the U.S., the right to abortion for all women is under attack at the very same time as are the rights of poor women and women of color to bear children.

The "Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act" of 1996 rewards states that show the highest reduction in the numbers of abortions and of births to unmarried mothers. This has prompted many politicians to introduce bills that make it mandatory for women who rely on public assistance or are labeled as drug abusers to use Norplant or Depo-Provera.

Similarly, Dr. Laura Schlessinger, conservative scourge of the radio airwaves, is a booster for a scheme that promises drug addicts up to $200 for giving up their right to procreate; their options include Norplant and Depo-Provera.

These laws and programs echo the push to force or trick women of color into being sterilized in the 1960s and '70s - which resulted in the sterilization of as many as 25,000 Native American women and one-third of women of child-bearing age in Puerto Rico.

Full reproductive freedom for all!

Every woman should have informed access to safe, effective, convenient methods of birth control - just as every woman should have the right to bear and raise children, with social support including everything from prenatal care to financial assistance as necessary. But these reproductive rights are under fire for all women, and doubly and triply so for women of color.

Why? Because it is not in the best interest of the bosses and their politicians, of both the Democrat and Republican varieties, for women to control our own bodies and destinies. Denying women reproductive rights is a crucial part of keeping women in a second-class position - and maintaining the inferior status of women is in turn a key component of keeping profits high.

What would a truly humane reproductive policy include? For starters:

o BAN DEPO PROVERA AND NORPLANT AROUND THE WORLD; bring criminal charges against the pharmaceutical companies that distribute them.

o STOP ALL TESTING OF DRUGS AND MEDICAL EXPERIMENTATION ON WOMEN THAT IS NOT COMPLETELY VOLUNTARY, fully explained, and closely monitored from beginning to end by the best health professionals.

o NATIONALIZE HEALTHCARE. This is the only way to ensure that safe, reliable contraceptives are developed and distributed to all who want them, regardless of age or income. And the only way to make companies like Upjohn stop peddling unsafe but profitable products!


These demands won't be won with polite, liberal lobbying. It's going to take a radical, grassroots movement, led by uppity women of color and poor and working women joined by feminist men - the kind of all-out mobilization that in the 1970s won abortion rights, checked the forced sterilization campaign, and stopped the approval of Depo-Provera. We can take heart from the more recent victory of Peruvian feminists who helped last year to bring about what the government called a "collapse" of its barbaric sterilization program, aimed at poor and Native women.

¡Basta! Enough of servility and suffering!

Christina Lopez, a Chicana feminist, is a leader in the Seattle Mumia Defense Committee. Her student activism in MEChA in Arizona led her to radical politics.