Iran bans vasectomies, wants more babies


Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, delivers a speech in Tehran in June. (www.leader.ir via Reuters)

Men in Iran wanting to get vasectomies will soon be out of luck now that the country's parliament has approved a ban on surgical, permanent forms of birth control. Violators will be punished as having committed a crime, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported Sunday.

The bill also bans similar procedures for women but includes an exemption for cases in which the surgery “is urgently needed for health,” IRNA reports.

Why pass such legislation? In two words: declining birthrates. IRNA reports that the country’s birthrate is 1.8 children per woman, according to Khalil Ali-Mohammadzadeh of Iran’s Health and Treatment Commission of Women’s Cultural and Social Council. That’s below the 2.1 birthrate needed to replace the population as people die.

Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, has publicly encouraged young Iranians to have more babies as a way of pushing back on "undesirable aspects of Western lifestyles.”

The bill’s passage and Khamenei’s exhortations actually represent a reversal of Iranian policy. After the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s, birth control became widespread and deemed acceptable to conservative Muslims by then-Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, who raised alarms that the economy couldn’t support the birthrate growth. People could get contraceptives — for free! — at government clinics, and family planning counseling became a requirement for those wanting to get married. There were slogans such as “Less Children, Better Lives,” and health workers focused on strategies to reduce infant mortality rates.

But as women delayed having babies, more of them entered schools and the workplace (gender segregation in schools after the 1979 revolution also contributed to more girls from conservative families getting educated). Women began outnumbering men in universities in 2001. Now, reformist lawmakers accuse hard-liners of encouraging women to have babies — and banning some birth control — as a way to push women out of professions and confine them to traditional roles.

Some health advocates also worry that the ban will fuel a rise in abortions, which are illegal except when the life of the mother is in danger or the baby is diagnosed with certain defects.

In 2012, Khamenei called the population-control policy of the 1990s a mistake. “Government officials were wrong on this matter, and I, too, had a part,” he said at the time. “May God and history forgive us.” And in May, he issued a 14-point decree to increase family sizes, which urged promotion of an “Iranian-Islamic lifestyle” rather than a Western one. Officials subsequently announced that couples could be eligible for government subsidies to pay for fertility treatments.

As for the birth-control ban, it still faces some internal review; Reuters reports that it now heads to the Guardian Council, where officials will weigh whether it passes muster with their interpretation of Islam.

Elahe Izadi is a general assignment national reporter for The Washington Post.
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