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Israel's Health Ministry has ordered doctors to review how they prescribe a birth-control drug, after accusations it was being used to control the population of Ethiopian immigrants.

Suspicions that Ethiopian women had been coerced into receiving Depo-Provera arose in Israeli media a few years ago and most recently in a TV documentary linking the community's falling birth rate to over-prescription of the injectable contraceptive.

After a civil-rights group accused it of racism, the Health Ministry ordered doctors not to renew Depo-Provera prescriptions unless they were convinced patients understood the ramifications, according to a letter from the ministry posted on the group's website on Monday.

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Ministry Director-General Roni Gamzu said the decision did not imply he accepted the allegations by the Association of Civil Rights in Israel.

In a letter to Dr. Gamzu two weeks ago, ACRI said "the sweeping use of Depo-Provera among Ethiopian women raises heavy suspicions that we are talking about a deliberate policy to control and monitor fertility among this community.

"The data … point to a paternalistic, haughty and racist attitude that limits considerably the freedom of Ethiopian immigrants to choose the birth control that is medically suitable for them."

ACRI said statistics from a major Israeli health provider showed that it had administered Depo-Provera injections to 5,000 women in 2008, 57 per cent of whom were Ethiopian.

"The way that ACRI regards this letter from the Ministry of Health is as an important recognition that the phenomenon was indeed occurring," ACRI spokesman Marc Grey told Agence France-Presse.

Israel has denied any policy to curb the birth rate among the 100,000 Ethiopian Jews who have moved to Israel since chief rabbis determined in 1973 that the community had biblical roots.

The controversy arose six weeks ago after a television documentary aired that recounted interviews with 35 Ethiopian immigrants. While the women were still in transit camps in Ethiopia they were sometimes intimidated or threatened into taking the injection, according to a description of the program published in the Haaretz newspaper.

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"They told us they are inoculations," one of the women interviewed said. "They told us people who frequently give birth suffer. We took it every three months. We said we didn't want to."

The documentary, broadcast on Israeli Educational Television, showed a nurse saying on a hidden camera that Ethiopian women were given Depo-Provera because they "don't understand anything" and would forget to take birth-control pills.

Rick Hodes, medical director in Ethiopia for the American Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, a non-governmental organization that helps to facilitate immigration to Israel, also denied the accusation that women are coerced into receiving the injections before leaving for the Jewish state.

"Injectable drugs have always been the most popular form of birth control in Ethiopia, as well as among women in our program," Dr. Hodes wrote on Twitter.

"Our family program is, and always [has] been, purely voluntary."

The birth rate among Israel's Ethiopian immigrant population has dropped nearly 20 per cent in 10 years.

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