The Iranian parliament is to consider banning vasectomies as a way of pushing up the country’s below-replacement birth rate. On the table, too, is the possibility of restricting abortion and contraceptive services.
"If we move forward like this, we will be a country of elderly people in a not too distant future," said Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, in October.
"Why do some [couples] prefer to have one … or two children? Why do men or women avoid having children through different means? The reasons need to be studied. We are not a country of 75 million, we have [the capacity] to become at least 150 million people, if not more."
This is not a new concern, but it may be the first time that the government takes firm action to raise the birth rate from its current level of about 1.85. Back in 2006 President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also called for a baby boom. "I am against saying that two children are enough. Our country has a lot of capacity. It has the capacity for many children to grow in it," he declared. "Westerners have got problems. Because their population growth is negative, they are worried and fear that if our population increases, we will triumph over them." But this fizzled. His advisors had a quiet word in his ear and Ahmadinejad turned his mind to other ways of threatening the West.
Iran’s population problem is a result of one of the most remarkable demographic shifts in world history. The fertility rate has declined from 7 children per woman in 1980 to 1.9 today – a drop of 70% in the space of a single generation. About 80% of married women use contraception -- the highest rate among all the countries in the Middle East.
These staggering statistics confound stereotypes about Iran. Even though the Western media depicts this nation of 70 million as a teeming cauldron of Islamic fundamentalism and social and moral conservatism, the trend to lower birth rates began long ago.
In 1967 Mohammad Reza Shah signed the Tehran Declaration. This acknowledged family planning as a human right and programs were quickly established. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution booted out the Shah, they were dismantled for being pro-Western. But contraceptive use was not totally banned.
Then came the calamitous eight-year between Iran and Iraq, in which Iran suffered as many as a million casualties. In these drastic circumstances, a large population was regarded as an asset and the government promoted large families.
After the war, there was a 180-degree turn. Shocked by the rapidly growing population, the government vigorously promoted family planning as a path to economic development. Women were encouraged to space births and to stop at three. Although there was no overt coercion, a 1993 social engineering law penalised large families by terminating family allowances, health benefits and maternity leave for families with four or more children.
The result was unprecedented. Iran’s fertility figures skidded dramatically. The fertility rate for women in rural areas dropped from 8 children per woman in 1977 to 2 children in 2006.
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