The lawsuit fizzled, but with help from a small U.S. nonprofit called the Rebecca Project for Human Rights, she shopped a series of stories to Ghana’s tabloid press. The Depo-Provera story caused a national scandal. Although it was denounced by Ghanaian health professionals and traditional leaders as libelous—the Navrongo project hadn’t tested any medications— so many death threats were directed at the project that some staff had to be evacuated across the Burkina Faso border.
The episode would mark the opening shot in a new war over birth control in Africa. It also reflected an evolution in the U.S. anti-abortion movement’s strategy in which it started to co-opt the language of women’s and civil rights used by progressives. There were fewer bloody fetus posters and more talk about how abortion and contraception violated women’s safety and impeded racial justice.
Anti-abortion groups hired black activists and highlighted uglier aspects of the history of reproductive health care — in particular, the courting of the eugenics movement by Planned Parenthood founder Margaret Sanger in the early part of the 20th century. A right-wing documentary, Maafa 21: Black Genocide in 21st Century America, used a Swahili word that refers to the holocaust of African enslavement to denounce Planned Parenthood as racist. Billboards in Atlanta and Manhattan carried messages like, “The most dangerous place for an African American is in the womb.” And federal and state legislators proposed a series of bills banning race- and sex-selective abortions in order to insinuate that abortion providers deliberately target communities of color.
As black feminists pointed out, these groups cared little for women’s or civil rights in general, or black women’s well-being in particular. (A 2009 U.S. House bill titled the “Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass Prenatal Nondiscrimination Act” was co-sponsored by a champion of the Confederate flag.)
But the strategy exploited the real and painful history of medical abuses against people of color in the U.S., from compulsory or coercive sterilization campaigns from the 1910s to ’60s (including the sterilization of a third of all Puerto Rican mothers between 20 and 49 years old by 1965) to unsafe contraceptives marketed to poor women of color from the 1970s to ’90s. And the legacy of those abuses could be profound. One 2016 study found that the notorious Tuskegee Study, wherein hundreds of black men were left with untreated syphilis so U.S. government researchers could track the progress of the disease, led to such mistrust of the medical establishment that it reduced the life expectancy of a generation of black men by more than a year.
The Rebecca Project, a small, Washington-based nonprofit focused on issues disproportionately affecting women of color, hadn’t been involved on either side of the abortion fight. But in 2011, the group released a thinly-sourced report titled “Non-Consensual Research in Africa: The Outsourcing of Tuskegee,” outlining what it claimed was a series of unethical U.S.-backed medical experiments in Africa.
Some of the examples were documented stories of legitimate concern — for instance, HIV-positive women in southern Africa had been pressured into sterilization procedures by local health care entities. The report attempted to link them to shakier allegations of USAID funding being used for coercive sterilization campaigns in other countries. But the report’s real target, it seemed, was the Gates-backed health initiative in Navrongo. Later, the report’s lead author would suggest that people involved with the project should be charged with attempted genocide.
The report had numerous factual problems. Its author ― the Rebecca Project’s chief financial officer, Kwame Fosu ― also hadn’t disclosed a significant conflict of interest: The employee who’d leveled the charges against the Ghana project was the mother of his child. The fallout wound up splitting the organization, as one of its founders and several staff departed, taking with them all the Rebecca Project’s funding. Left with the group’s name, Fosu doubled down on his conspiratorial claims.
In 2013, Fosu published another report, “Depo-Provera: Deadly Reproductive Violence Against Women.” Drawing heavily on unnamed sources, paranoid accusations and the rhetoric of right-wing anti-abortion groups, this report used the Ghana story to anchor claims of a massive international conspiracy, led by the Gates Foundation, to push dangerous contraceptives on poor black women as a means of decreasing African births and advancing “population control ideology.” Fosu brought the Rebecca Project into alliance with a network of conservative Catholic nonprofits, like C-Fam and the Population Research Institute (PRI), that had long focused on fighting reproductive rights in developing nations or at the United Nations.
A portion of the title page from The Rebecca Project for Justice’s 2013 report.
His new allies began publicizing Fosu’s claims to a large audience of conservative activists, arguing that he had uncovered the smoking gun confirming their long-held suspicions. As the head of PRI put it, “The population controllers will stop at nothing to stop African women from having children.” By 2014, the Rebecca Project was focusing full-time on the scourge of Depo-Provera. At the same time, the Gates Foundation was undertaking a new mission to radically expand contraceptive access to women in Africa, including with a new, low-dose adaptation of Depo-Provera.
The foundation’s family planning campaign had already drawn predictable backlash from religious groups. But as U.S. anti-abortion groups and websites circulated the Rebecca Project’s allegations, the opposition was no longer dominated by complaints that Gates was tempting African women to defy their faith. The new narrative was that Gates was waging “chemical warfare on poor women” in a neocolonial effort to suppress African births.
Soon, powerful figures across Africa were making similar claims, undermining vital public health projects in the process. In 2014, Zimbabwe’s Registrar General, Tobaiwa Mudede — the official responsible for overseeing the country’s dubious elections — warned women to avoid modern contraceptives because they caused cancer and were a Western ploy to limit African population growth. In 2015, Mudede told parliamentarians, “Western countries are bent on curtailing the population of the darker races of the world.” According to a parliamentary committee, Mudede’s campaign panicked Zimbabwean women, who flooded into clinics to have contraceptive implants removed.
In Kenya, all 27 members of the nation’s Conference of Catholic Bishops declared that a WHO/UNICEF campaign to administer neonatal tetanus vaccines to women of childbearing age was really “a disguised population control programme.” According to the bishops, the vaccines were laced with a hormone that would cause repeated miscarriages and eventual sterility.
The same conservative Catholic network the Rebecca Project had allied itself with published numerous stories amplifying the bishops’ accusations and casting doubt on the government’s response. The Kenyan Parliament was forced to have the vaccine tested repeatedly. But by the time the claims were debunked, priests around Kenya had already instructed their congregants to refuse the vaccine.
Back in the U.S., Fosu also worked with C-Fam to lobby delegates from African nations, with some success. After a meeting of the Commission on the Status of Women, a regional grouping of African countries released an unprecedented statement expressing concerns over “harmful contraceptives,” echoing specific claims by Fosu and his allies. The next month, at the Commission on Population and Development, delegates couldn’t agree on an outcome document for the first time in the commission’s 48 years — the result, conservative advocates claimed, of African and other developing nations’ frustration with “the profusion of references to population control, adolescent sexual activity, abortion, and comprehensive sexuality education.”
Undermining Confidence In A Coronavirus Vaccine
The Rebecca Project has long since faded into obscurity. But the current attacks on Gates and his foundation are now broadcasting the same themes to a massive global audience.
In April, Trump boosters Diamond & Silk vowed they would never take a vaccine created by Gates because he’d sought to make Africans “guinea pigs.” (This claim was helped along by erroneous media reporting that falsely suggested Gates planned to test his vaccine in South Africa.) “I have a problem receiving any vaccine from any entity, especially anybody like Bill Gates who pushed for population control. The same thing that Margaret Sanger pushed for,” Diamond said. “Abortions! Genocide!” Silk explained.
In response to these and other conspiracy theories, including their contention that the virus was a “plandemic,” Fox Nation reportedly cut ties with the pair. But Diamond and Silk weren’t alone.
Conservative commentator Candace Owens tweeted in April that “vaccine-criminal Bill Gates” had used “African & Indian tribal children to experiment w/ non-FDA approved drug vaccines.” Last week, she declared “that under no circumstances will I be getting any #coronavirus vaccine that becomes available. Ever. No matter what.”
- In the U.S. alone, nearly a third of Americans say they’ll refuse a coronavirus vaccine.
An Infowars video suggested that Gates was the successor of eugenicist population controllers from Sanger to Nazi collaborators, and asked whether viewers would “allow your government to impose forced vaccines.” In a viral sermon, Rev. Danny Jones, the pastor of a 250-member Georgia church, predicted that Gates would use vaccines to usher in a new world order under which Christians might be forced to accept biometric tattoos.
On Twitter, hundreds of posts claimed that the billionaire had publicly said that vaccines could be used to lower the population by 10% to 15%. This was an old misrepresentation of Gates’ suggestion that increasing vaccination rates in the developing world could slow population growth, since families in which more children survive to adulthood might have fewer children overall.
Doctored photographs falsely suggesting the Gates Foundation runs a “Center for Human Population Reduction” spread so widely that both Reuters and Snopes published articles debunking them. Anti-vaxxer and Pizzagate proponents began sharing old C-Fam articles as proof that Gates “Thinks There Are Too Many Africans.” And the White House petition resurrected the old Kenyan controversy, informing new believers that Gates has “already been credibly accused of intentionally sterilizing Kenyan children through the use of a hidden HCG antigen in tetanus vaccines.”
By Saturday, the Gates-population control narrative had made its way onto conservative network One American News, quoting an anti-social distancing protester who charged,“This is not about COVID or about a virus. This is about gaining control over the human race and limiting population.”
Anti-Gates theories have resurfaced in Africa, as well. Unfounded rumors that Gates had bribed Nigerian lawmakers to pass a compulsory vaccination bill sparked a legislative investigation there. African Twitter influencers posted threads linking him not just to population control but the entire history of colonialist medical violence. One described the foundation’s family planning work “as genocide in Sub-Saharan Africa.” Another suggested that Gates would turn to “toxic Covid-19 vaccines” to depopulate South Africa next, since it had become “clear that this Depo is not working fast enough.”
Nancy Rosenblum, author of “A Lot of People are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy,” said that some people may simply see the proliferation of these conspiracy narratives as a vehicle to advance their agenda, exploiting the swirling outrage around Gates to introduce fringe arguments to a much larger audience. To Quassim Cassam, author of the book “Conspiracy Theories,” the anti-Gates attacks reflect a larger global trend towards populism, characterized by profound distrust of the establishment and experts.
“If you say it’s Gates or big corporations who are responsible for developing coronavirus via 5G, these are all ways of expressing anti-elitist sentiment,” Cassam said. “They’re fantasies, but they’re fantasies that give expression to real things in their lives.”
The potential impact of such fantasies could be dire. The legacy of medical abuses against people of color helped give rise to HIV/AIDS conspiracy theories, Rosenblum noted, from claims that it was a government-crafted bioweapon to charges that life-saving medications were poison. After the latter theory was adopted by South Africa’s former president, Thabo Mbeki, Harvard University researchers found it was responsible for more than 330,000 unnecessary deaths.
The Gates Foundation has already committed $300 million to fighting the coronavirus and finding a vaccine. Tens of millions of that sum are dedicated to ensuring that vaccines are distributed in poor countries. Conspiracy theories suggesting an eventual vaccine is part of a nefarious plot could leave many of the world’s most vulnerable at greater risk; in the U.S. alone, a late April survey found, nearly a third of Americans say they’ll refuse a vaccine.
Of course, the same side that is accusing Gates of planning an imminent eugenicist attack is also loudly pushing to reopen the economy, even though this will almost undoubtedly come at the cost of thousands of lives, overwhelmingly people of color. Rather than reckon with that reality, Republican leaders have argued that “there are more important things than living” and the public will “have to accept” massive new casualties.
Wisconsin’s chief justice dismissed superclusters of infection in the minority-staffed meatpacking industry as distinct from the threat posed to “regular folks.” One local California official mused that allowing the virus to “run rampant” through the ranks of the homeless, the old, the sick and the poor, represents a “natural” process of culling the “herd” that could lighten Social Security and health care burdens and free up jobs and housing.
Against this backdrop, right-wing claims of eugenics or population control begin to seem not just disingenuous, but like the most amoral form of projection.