When Maria Aguirrez woke up on the morning of June 5, 1977, she was, at first, too drenched with sweat to feel the blood. They had warned her at the clinic that there might be some bleeding, but this was more than a period. Her skirt, the worn sheet, the mat, were soaked through -- more than after her oldest daughter's birth, when the midwife had, at one point, simply prayed. Dimly, Maria must have realized that the baby was already awake and fussing. He was still fussing an hour later when Maria's sister, summoned by the older children, came running in. Maria was no longer sweating.
The death of Maria Aguirrez (not her real name) does not even figure as a statistic in our story. It was recorded as the result of a fever. That the fever and the bleeding were the result of an intrauterine device (IUD) known to be unsafe was not recorded. Nor would the information have made any difference to the government and corporate officials behind the distribution of the device; they were already well aware of the history of medical problems associated with it.
The U.S. government and U.S. drug companies maintain a systematic and intentional double standard for the sale of contraceptives. Unsafe IUDs, dangerous high-estrogen birth control pills and, most recently, Depo-Provera -- an injectable contraceptive not approved for American use -- are bought up wholesale by the U.S. government for mass consumption in the Third World. This is the story of how and where and why these contraceptive dumps take place, of the corporations that profit from them and of the government official, Dr. R.T. Ravenholt, who headed the Office of Population of the U.S. Agency for International Development and engineered the dumps.
The contraceptive double standard surfaced as a public issue only in the summer of 1978, when a congressional committee held hearings on the Depo-Provera problem: Should the U.S. government subsidize the export to Third World nations of a contraceptive drug that had been ruled unsafe for American women? Pharmaceutical company spokespeople, officials of the U.S. Agency for International Development (AID) and representatives of private population control agencies stood up one after another to advance the "humanitarian" defense of the double standard. Because the risks of dying in childbirth are so much greater in the Third World than in the United States, they asserted the use of almost any contraceptive is justified. Scientists from selected Third World governments, many of them U.S.-sponsored dictatorships like Chile and Thailand, seconded the argument, adding that their "national sovereignty" would be violated if they were denied access to the contraceptive of their choice. Consumer representatives countered that there is no excuse for sending our least safe contraceptive abroad and questioned the accountability of the "sovereign" governments, which, it is now known, have received millions of dollars in bribes from U.S. drug companies like Upjohn Co. (maker of Depo-Provera) and G. D. Searle Co. (a manufacturer of birth control pills).
At the bottom the contraceptive issue is no different than the case of Tris-treated pajamas, carcinogenic pesticides or lethal antibiotics: products that had been found unsafe for domestic use are still being sold overseas. There is, however, a crucial difference in the case of contraceptives: dumping them is not only a common business practice; it is part of U.S. foreign policy.