Iran’s parliament has voted to ban some forms of birth control, as well as advertising promoting the use of birth control, in an effort to spur more women to have babies. The measure, which has been championed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, is designed as a direct response to the country’s declining fertility rate, which puts Iran on track to have the lowest percentage of residents between the ages of 15 and 24 in the Muslim world.
The policy will now head to a panel of theologians who are tasked with determining whether proposed legislation complies with Islam. The members of that panel are appointed by the Ayatollah, who has argued that spurring population growth is essential for preserving Iran’s “national identity” and combating Western influence.
Under the measure, permanent birth control surgeries like vasectomies and tubal litigation — procedures that about 100,000 Iranians underwent last year — will be illegal. The doctors who perform them could face fines. Members of the media, meanwhile, will be subject to prosecution if they choose to publicize birth control or other family planning efforts.
It’s a sharp departure from the way the country has previously approached reproductive health. Iran used to have one of the best family planning systems in the world; there was widespread support for free contraception and condoms, and the high court of theologians determined that there’s “no Islamic barrier” to those type of services. For two decades, robust reproductive health programs — including mandatory premarital counseling that would help couples plan out how to support their future family — led to smaller family sizes in the country, particularly once Iran began struggling with an economic downturn.
Nonetheless, amid concerns about the declining population, Iranian leaders reversed course. In 2012, the government abruptly announced that it would no longer subsidize family planning programs, putting an end to the popular policy. Now, there’s a full scale campaign underway to try to convince Iranians to procreate. At the end of last year, billboards appeared across Tehran proclaiming “A single blossom is not spring” and “More children, better lives.”
Critics point to the images on the billboards as a prime example of why Iran’s recent push is misguided. In order to illustrate that more children equal better lives, the public service announcement depicted a happy father and his four children riding on a single bicycle, as a despondent dad and his only son trail behind. There wasn’t a mother on either bicycle, since Iran discourages from women from riding bikes — an activity that’s been described as “shameless and lust-provoking.” Opponents of the birth control ban say that Iranian leaders are trying to push women back into more traditional roles as wives and mothers as their rate of education has continued to climb over the past several decades.
“It will not work. Iranian women are plucky, they are thoughtful. Sixty five percent of entering classes at universities are women. How can you convince them to have a child every year?” Haleh Esfandiari, an Iranian-American who directs the Wilson Center’s Middle East Program, recently pointed out in an interview published on her organization’s blog.
Plus, according to recent research conducted by a team of Harvard sociologists, attempting to force women back into the domestic sphere may actually backfire on Iran altogether.
The Harvard researchers found that allowing women to have a more equal position in society helps spur population growth. In countries that maintain traditional ideas about gender norms, and expect women to remain at home to raise children, ambitious women are more likely to feel pressured to choose their career over having kids. Those young people will skip having a family altogether. On the other hand, in more egalitarian countries with strong government safety net for both working parents, the birth rates are holding up. That’s in line with previous research that has confirmed birth rates rise under more comprehensive policies addressing child care, housing, and work-life balance.