TEHRAN, Iran — The Iranian parliament, with the encouragement of Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has voted to ban all forms of surgical, permanent contraception for both men and women. The new legislation also prohibits the advertising or promotion of other birth control methods. Unless a sterilization surgery is urgently required for health reasons, violators of the new law will be punished as criminals.
The bill must now be examined to determine its compliance with Islamic ideals, but Khamenei describes it as a way to “strengthen national identity” against the “undesirable aspects of Western lifestyles.” Experts maintain this will have negative repercussions for a country subject to Western sanctions, as well as facing economic crises such as high inflation and unemployment rates. A law ostensibly passed to fight poverty by lowering the median age and pumping young blood into the workforce is likely to have the opposite effect.
This is a step backward for Iran, a country where condoms and other birth control products were made widely available over 20 years ago. The baby boom stimulated by the Iraq-Iran war was curbed by government officials broadcasting slogans like “Fewer Children, Better Lives” and “Two Children is Enough” and promoting the use of family planning methods.
In a speech Khamenei made in October 2013, the Supreme Leader said he had made a mistake in previously trying to lower birth rates. “One of the mistakes we made in the ’90s was population control. Government officials were wrong on this matter, and I, too, had a part. May God and history forgive us.”
Iran’s current average birthrate is 1.8 children per woman, which remains below the 2.1 replacement birthrate necessary to keep the population level. But while the country’s new bill may lead to population growth, it will likely have negative repercussions as well.
One major worry among health officials is that the contraceptive ban will prompt a rise in abortions, which are illegal except when the mother’s health is in jeopardy or when a fetus is diagnosed with certain defects. Between 2012 and 2013, 6,000 illegal terminations were performed. With a contraceptive ban in place, this number is sure to rise.
Health minister Hassan Hashemi expressed concern over the issue: “We need to convince people [not to support the ban], otherwise we will go back to 20 years ago when illegal abortions were on the rise,” he said. “We too are concerned that the birth rate is declining but we shouldn’t act on a whim.”
Iranian reformists and women’s rights activists are also wary. They view the bill not only as a drive to increase population, but also as a strategy to pigeonhole educated Iranian women into more traditional roles. As women delayed getting married and having children during the 1990s, more of them were inclined to finish schooling and enter the workforce. In the following decade, women in higher education even began to outnumber their male counterparts.
With the parliament’s approval of the contraceptive bill, reformist lawmakers are now concerned that conservatives have withdrawn access to birth control as a plan to reinstate male dominance in higher education and the professional sphere.
A major drawback to the bill is that rapid population growth is likely to contribute to a cycle of poverty in Iran. Women will be sidelined from education and employment opportunities, thereby undermining an already weakened economy. In addition, limited resources will have to be divided among more children, lessening the quality of life for all. It has also been shown throughout history and across continents that high birthrates compromise health by contributing to infant malnutrition and higher risk of complications during pregnancy and childbirth. Hopefully, Iran will adjust its legislation and consider more sustainable methods of population growth before causing irreparable harm to its socioeconomic structure.
– Mari LeGagnoux