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Iran Once Offered Free Birth Control to All Its Citizens, and It Was Amazing

by BUST Magazine

In the late 1980s, Iran introduced one of the most progressive family-planning programs the world has ever seen. Now the country’s government is trying to reverse the low-birth rate trend, and women are paying the price.

Quick quiz: What country declared, in 1967, that birth control was a human right, making it one of the first nations in the world to do so? What country, until very recently, offered free birth control to all of its citizens, resulting in the most successful population-control program ever in human history? And what country did Amnesty International criticize, just last spring, for threatening to turn women into “baby-making machines”? If you answered Iran to all three questions, you’re right. But the story of how such a seemingly repressive country once led the world in family planning, and is now threatening to reverse all those strides, is a tale filled with twists and turns, revolutions and retractions, traditions and innovations. And hanging in the balance is not just women’s ability to control their own bodies, but also their very rights as humans.

The history of Iran’s family planning program can be told in four distinct parts. Part one begins in 1967, when the first comprehensive birth control plan was introduced by Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the last Shah of Iran. Under this plan, contraception was freely distributed by the state, and a training program for medical personnel was put into place. But while the program was groundbreaking for its time, it wasn’t completely successful: it neglected to take into account the lack of access to health facilities (and thus the free birth control) in rural areas, and didn’t address religious opposition to family planning. Officials also failed to make education a key facet of the program, so adults were largely left without the ability to make informed choices. Even with such easy access, only 37 percent of married women utilized contraceptives, and the birth rate hovered at about seven children per woman.

The second act of this tale opens with the Islamic Revolution of 1979, when the monarchy fell, and the new ruler, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, quickly and violently consolidated his control over the country, bringing with him a deeply conservative interpretation of Islam. The family-planning program, now thought of as being too “Western,” was dismantled. Then, in 1980, Saddam Hussein’s forces invaded the country, and hundreds of thousands of Iranians were killed. Over the course of the eight-year war, replenishing and growing Iran’s population became a priority for its leaders. The government began a propaganda campaign calling on women to help the country build a “Twenty Million Man Army,” offering financial incentives for families with more children, and dropping the legal marrying age to 13 for girls.

“Iran operated the only condom factory in the Middle East. Pumping out over 70 million of the little raincoats a year.”

The plan worked. In fact, it worked a little too well. By 1986, the country had grown from 34 million in 1976 to 50 million, and if it continued to grow at that rate, the government and economy wouldn’t be able to support it. The Iran-Iraq war had left the country isolated from the rest of the world, and in dire financial shape. There would simply not be enough money to both rebuild the war-torn nation and provide its expanding number of citizens the services they expected—including government-supported health care and education—if their population explosion continued.

Quickly, the state changed course, and reinstated their family-planning program, thereby beginning the third, and longest-running phase of Iran’s birth-control story.

Launched in 1989 by the Ministry of Health under the slogan, “One is good. Two is enough,” the program made all kinds of contraception—including condoms, the Pill, IUDs, tubal ligations, vasectomies, and the morning-after pill—available to Iran’s citizens, for free. (Abortion remained illegal, except in certain high-risk pregnancies.) But that was just the beginning of this new and extremely ambitious plan. Although participation was completely voluntary, the program’s strategy for success was deeply rooted in education. For one thing, all university students were required to take a course in family planning. For another, couples wishing to wed had to take similar classes before they could get a marriage license. The fact that both men as well as women would be participating in these lessons was no accident; the government wanted to make sure that men were as involved in birth control as women were. But men were supported in other ways, too—Iran operated the only condom factory in the Middle East, pumping out over 70 million of the little raincoats a year.

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Learning from their earlier mistakes, the government also made sure that, this time around, women in rural areas would have equal access to family-planning programs, so they put into place a network of clinics that has since become a model for other under-served communities. Not only that, but the religious concerns the program had faced in the past were addressed as well. At the request of the country’s Ministers of Health, Iran’s supreme leader issued a fatwah, or religious edict, declaring that, “…contraceptive use was not inconsistent with Islamic tenets as long as it did not jeopardize the health of the couple and was used with the informed consent of the husband.” The population-control policy was boosted even further by its support from various clerics, although not necessarily how one might have hoped: some religious leaders warned that having too many children would age women prematurely, and thereby they would risk losing their husbands. (Heaven forbid!)

The program was a huge success. The initial goals were to reduce the birth rate from about six children per woman in 1989, to just four, but it overshot that number by quite a bit. Ten years after the program began, the average number of children per family was down to 1.8 (below “replenishment rate”), and the number of women using birth control was up from 37 percent in the late 1970s to 74 percent in 2000—with the Pill and sterilization being the most common methods. Iran’s family-planning program was hailed by international organizations as the most successful in human history, and Iran was given the United Nations Population Award in 2001 in recognition of their accomplishment.

But the program impacted more than just the birth rate—it also had an enormous effect on women’s lives. Having more control over their bodies gave Iranian women an unprecedented and comprehensive opportunity to chart a new course in society. They began marrying later, and waiting longer before having their first child. Many sought higher education during those childfree years. Taking universities by storm, by 2007 women made up 64.5 percent of all university admissions, and the government moved to create a quota system so that men could access higher education, too.

Along with increased education came the opportunity for women to elevate their status in Iranian society. Although Iranian women still made up just a small percentage of the workforce—in 2006, women accounted for only 13 percent—a university degree increased a woman’s likelihood of marrying a man from a better socioeconomic class, thereby upping the level of prestige for herself and her family. For this reason, higher learning became a goal that extended over generations; the vast majority of Iranian mothers wanted to see their daughters continue their education rather than marry early.

Having more control over their bodies gave Iranian women an unprecedented and comprehensive opportunity to chart a new course in society.

Still, many women in Iran were less concerned with their opportunities to work outside the home, and more with their right to a fair and secure marriage. After the 1979 revolution, most of women’s rights in marriage were taken away, and Iranian men were granted the right to divorce at will, have as many as four wives at one time and as many mistresses (“temporary wives”) as they desired, and were guaranteed absolute custody of their children. As a result, some women weren’t on board with Iran’s family-planning program, deciding instead to have more children as a means of stabilizing their marriages. A husband who has to provide for a large family would be less likely to add additional financial obligations—such as another wife— the reasoning went, and he’d also be less likely to divorce and find a new wife who’d be willing to take on the burden of so many children that were not her own. It may come as no surprise, then, that many men were more in favor of having fewer children than their wives were. But since men usually left women in charge of birth control, “accidental” pregnancies were not infrequent.

For these reasons, feminist activists argued that improving women’s rights in marriage could help with Iran’s desire to control its population, as well as bring about other important social benefits. Eventually, they won their case, and the regime introduced moderate reforms to the country’s family laws, placing limitations on a husband’s right to forbid his wife from working, and giving women the right to divorce. Between the power to control their bodies, greater access to education, and increased rights within their families, things were looking up for Iranian women, all thanks to the country’s revolutionary family-planning program.

familybb22013Iran Family Planning Billboard “More Children, A Happier Life”But while this period in Iran’s history makes it sound like a birth control utopia, the fourth, and most recent, chapter in their family-planning saga is more like a nightmare. In a tragic case of déja-vu, Iran has begun rolling back their family-planning program once again. Realizing that a very low birthrate would result in a decline in the country’s overall population, as well as being a bad omen of future economic hardship, the regime decided it was time for yet another U-turn in policy. In 2010, then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad began a campaign offering financial incentives to encourage families to have more children. Under the new plan, new-borns would’ve received a government bank account with a $950 balance, and an additional $95 each year until they turned 18. But the sky-high cost of the program quickly drew fire from Parliament, and it never quite got off the ground.

By August of 2012, the Ahmadinejad regime was ready to try a new tactic, and announced that they were shutting down the entire population-control program, claiming that the low birth rate would result in too few working-age citizens to support its aging population. “If we move forward like this, we will be a country of elderly people in a not too distant future,” Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khameniei said in 2013. However, critics have disputed the cleric’s claim, pointing out that close to 70 percent of Iran’s population of 77 million are under the age of 35, a sufficiently large number to support an older generation.

Eliminating the free birth-control plan turned out not to be enough to increase the birth rate, however, as contraceptives continued to be available, for a price. A public campaign combating Iran’s own “Two is enough” message began, with billboards around the country that read, “One flower does not make spring” and “More children, a happier life.” Ayatollah Mohammad Ghazvini went on national television to say that the government goal was to grow the birth rate to no less than five children per family, and encouraged viewers to get going, stat. “So tonight…start the operation of having 5, 8, 12, and 14 children,” he announced, “which, God willing, will be a big slap in the face… [to] this nasty one-child culture.”

“While this period in Iran’s history makes it sound like a birth control utopia. The most recent chapter in their family-planning saga is more like a nightmare.”

Then, in April of 2014, the government moved to introduce far more extensive measures to decrease birth-control use. The “Bill to Increase Fertility Rates and Prevent Population Decline” bans all forms of sterilization—the second most popular contraception method in Iran—and promises harsh disciplinary actions for any physicians found to be performing the procedure. It also bans anyone from distributing or promoting any information related to contraception. 

A second bill, “The Exhaltation of Family Bill,” establishes even more restrictions. In an effort to dissuade women from putting off marriage or childbirth, the bill demands that employers give hiring priority to, in this order, “married men with children, married men without children, and women with children.” A childless woman could only be hired if no qualified women with children can be found. To take things further, the bill also bans the recruitment of single women as schoolteachers, or as members of the board at higher education facilities. Finally, the bill makes it while this period in Iran’s history makes it more difficult for couples to divorce. Amnesty International has been swift to criticize both of these bills, stating that these laws will reduce Iranian women to “baby-making machines rather than human beings with fundamental rights.”

Still, the question remains: will all this add up to population growth?

With Iran’s economy suffering, many couples claim that the reason they aren’t having more children is because they simply can’t afford to. Additionally, Iranian women have now grown accustomed to control over their own family-planning decisions, and expect to have equal access to education. Today, women are empowered to decide for themselves when and if they wish to have children, and it’s almost certain that Iranian women will not sit silently by while the hard-won rights they’ve secured are trampled on.

Above a busy highway in Tehran, a large billboard displays a colorful illustration. In it, a father and his five children are bicycling happily together on a bicycle made for six, while another father pedals forlornly with his one and only child. “More children, a happier life” the billboard states in both Farsi and English. The ad has been criticized for leaving the mother out of the illustration, and the creators have responded that they didn’t want to appear to be promoting cycling for women (which has been described as “shameless and lust-provoking” by some fundamentalists). But there may well be another reason that the mother was left out of the poster. For Iranian women, it isn’t more children that would give them a happier life—it’s more rights.


By Bridey Heing with additional reporting by Debbie Stoller
Illustration by Stephanie Kubo

Photo by Iran Primer

This article originally appeared in the December/January print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today

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