What Iran's permanent contraceptives ban will mean for women

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Photo: kate geraghty

A country where contraception is illegal is a country that is hostile to women. Last week Iran’s parliament passed legislation that would criminalise abortions, sterilisations and any form of permanent contraception such as vasectomies. With lengthy prison terms for convicted offenders, the drastic move is designed to combat the country’s sharply decreasing population. 

The steep decline is intriguing given that, unlike western countries experiencing similar downturns, the country’s population is mostly very young. Almost 70 percent of Iran’s 77 million people are under 35. And until relatively recently, the birth rate was booming.

It certainly isn’t news that women’s bodies frequently become the battleground in politics. Just yesterday the US Supreme Court ruled that closely held corporations (i.e. those with only a few shareholders) who oppose women’s contraception on religious grounds did not have to include reproductive healthcare in their employees’ insurance, as required under President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. 

An Iranian woman and a boy shop at a grocery store in Tehran.

An Iranian woman and a boy shop at a grocery store in Tehran. Photo: ATTA KENARE

Meanwhile, here in NSW, women are still waiting for the Upper House to debate Zoe’s Law, which, if passed will see personhood endowed on a foetus of 20 weeks. Increasingly, it appears, both corporations and foetuses are entitled to more human rights than women.

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Ironically, Iran’s current move to ban contraception overturns a previous campaign, “Fewer kids, better lives” first issued under Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi’s rule in the 1960s, and which called for couples to have less children. But the population didn’t really explode until the early 80s, in the years following the Islamic Revolution, when the population still harboured enthusiasm for the new regime and the future.

Now with Iran's dwindling population, and with the goal of doubling the population by 2050, the government is doing everything it can to boost the rate of birth. 

Initially, the issue was tackled with incentives including free delivery stays in hospital and longer maternity leave, and by cancelling birth control subsidies.

That quickly made way for the more forceful and worrying measures outlined the recent legislation. Although abortion was already technically illegal in most circumstances, it remains widely practiced. This ban will now be more strictly enforced, as will the ban on permanent contraceptives.

Alarmingly, the legislation doesn’t identify who will face criminal proceedings - the patients or the healthcare providers - but it’s not difficult to see where this will lead. Wherever contraception and abortion are restricted, desperate women resort to drastic measures, putting their own safety and lives at risk. This means women will suffer disproportionately.

The Iranian lawmaker, Mohammed Davatgari, who opposed the legislation, agrees. “Passing this bill will definitely lead to illegal procedures in dark corridors and unregulated offices,"  he warned. “We have take cultural action and I’m pleading with the speaker of parliament that we cannot force people to have children with prison terms and lashes.”

There are also fears that this is little more than a move by the government to force Iranian women back into the home. In the words of one concerned sociologist, “It will make them more financially dependent on their husbands and the political system, prioritise the family’s well-being over women’s health and education and as a result of all these will make women’s mobilization much more difficult.”

Iran is certainly not the first country to meddle in the reproductive choices of its people with disastrous consequences for women. China’s one-child policy when combined with its cultural preference for boys led to a shortage of women, which in turn fuelled the trafficking industry, with thousands of women kidnapped and sold to families of men who cannot find brides.

For their part, Iranians seem largely unimpressed with the government’s campaign. “We are always told how there is a bright future ahead, but we are not allowed to live now,” 25 year-old Hadi Najafi -who says he cannot afford to marry, let alone have kids- told The New York Times. “If only things were better in my lifetime, I would have a dozen children to share my happiness with.”

Iranian women have been protesting the hardline rule of their government for some years now, as the Stealthy Freedoms of Iranian women Facebook page, where tens of thousands of women have uploaded pictures of themselves flouting the strict law on hijab attests.

This time their protest is taking a different – and more personal -- form.

 “I just don’t want to bring children into this hell,” says Bita, a recent college graduate. She cites the intrusive state and its conservative ideology, as well as economic and political instability, as the reasons behind her and her husbands decision not to have children.

Not only will these measures come at the expense of women’s freedom, they will in all likelihood fail, as they do not take into account the economic reasons behind the populations reluctance to reproduce, as reported in The New York Times:

“The critical factor, said Mohammad Jalal Abbasi-Shavazi, head of the demographics department at Tehran University, is the economy. “A young and unmarried boy or girl who does not have a permanent job and relies on one-month contracts cannot dare to marry or have children,” he said, “because in that case he endangers his job security and his or her own living condition.” The solution is simple and very complicated at the same time, he said. “We must try to create jobs, so people can feel secure and follow their plans.”

Of course, much of those economic woes are a result of western sanctions designed to cripple the government’s nuclear program. But, with zero population growth possible within 20 years, Iranians themselves are finding what could ultimately prove a more effective method of punishing the regime. After all, you can’t oppress a population that doesn’t exist.

9 comments

  • Great article right up until you say it's all the fault of the U.S., every silly lefty blames everything on the U.S. and then wails and screams and cries if the U.S. doesn't step in to save the girls or whatever some crazy group has done. Otherwise it was going brilliantly.

    Commenter
    belle
    Date and time
    July 02, 2014, 6:50AM
    • Some history might assist you here Belle. Whilst Iran's problems are not entirely of US-making, not by a long shot, there is no doubt western interference has played a rather large part in the problems they experience today. Notably from the US support and installation of The Shah in the 1960's and the Iran/Iraq war of the 1980's. But of course, why worry about learning the facts when you can add such intellectual contributions to the debate by calling people silly lefties.

      Commenter
      Pink Peril
      Location
      Melbourne
      Date and time
      July 02, 2014, 11:52AM
    • Ms Hamad stated, correctly, that western sanctions have contributed to Iran's economic woes. The US was not specifically mentioned or blamed.

      Thanks for this article, Ruby. It is heartbreaking and an outrage that Iran has passed these laws. It is heartbreaking and an outrage that in 2014 all women still have to be vigilant about protecting their reproductive rights.

      Commenter
      Donna Joy
      Date and time
      July 02, 2014, 12:08PM
  • I think it’s important to point out that this isn’t about religion. This is about population growth, social control and ultimately power. The last line sums it up nicely.

    It’s also important to realise that we don’t escape this type of mentality either. We have opposing sides of politics – one encouraging more children, the other wanting to chastise ‘breeders.’ Both sides will use whatever god, pseudo-science or self-proclaimed moral superiority, to justify their position. But ultimately, it all comes down to which situation will bring them more power.

    Commenter
    Zahra
    Date and time
    July 02, 2014, 12:26PM
    • "We have opposing sides of politics – one encouraging more children, the other wanting to chastise ‘breeders.’"
      Sorry Zahra but I must've missed something about our opposing sides in politics, could you please explain?

      Commenter
      Aunty Jack
      Date and time
      July 02, 2014, 2:14PM
    • Badly worded sentence. What I meant to say was: We have opposing views in politics (even society in general) – some encouraging more children, the others wanting to chastise ‘breeders.

      Commenter
      Zahra
      Date and time
      July 02, 2014, 4:04PM
  • Anyone who does not agree that abortion is a woman's right, has an awry perspective of life. You can not impose someone's rights over the rights of others. Someone else's rights are not more important than your own. A foetus can not have rights that impose upon the Mother's rights whether it is a person or not. A foetus is vulnerable. No amount of enforcing accountability onto women can improve this human situation. Such is life.

    Commenter
    Rachael
    Location
    Sydney
    Date and time
    July 02, 2014, 2:54PM
    • " You can not impose someone's rights over the rights of others. Someone else's rights are not more important than your own."

      Of course you can. We do it all the time. That's one of those sentiments that makes a nice sound-bite, but is in fact completely wrong once you actually think about it. It actually undermines the argument by imposing absolutism on it.

      I can give you literally dozens of examples where other people's rights are imposed on mine to some degree, and vice-versa. Surrendering some of our personal freedom is part of living in a co-operative society. What matters is the degree and type of imposition.

      All 'rights' are essentially human-created social fictions, the universe doesn't have a set of human rights built-in. Once you accept that, the real question becomes which rights are more important.

      Personally, the right to abortion is near-absolute in my opinion. People should be able to do whatever they want with their own body unless it's directly harming another actual (not potential) sentient being.

      But arguing using logically-flawed absolutist positions is unhelpful, because an otherwise-valid argument can be shot down.

      Commenter
      DM
      Date and time
      July 02, 2014, 3:56PM
    • I think that I agree with you though my opinions may be more nuanced than those of others.

      Certainly the notion that a pregnant women is just a passive incubator of a foetus (ie, she never has rights in comparison to those of the foetus) is morally repugnant to me, writing as a male.

      However, I do think that there is a moral continuum of rights, based on the stages of foetal development. I have used the word "continuum" advisedly - I do not mean to imply that there is a single time during pregnancy before which a pregnant woman has 100% rights and after which she has 0% rights - this is not a black and white issue.

      Early in pregnancy the absolute right of the woman to have an abortion is undeniable because her rights exceed those of the foetus. But, during foetal development (as the foetus becomes increasingly capable of independent life) it gains rights until (as I wrote above, this is not black and white), its rights become comparable to those of the woman - this is a very hard moral issue.

      Commenter
      Dr Kiwi
      Date and time
      July 02, 2014, 4:42PM
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