Iran has reversed its population policy and cut back an innovative program to bring down fertility rates that almost doubled the population two decades after the revolution. Alarmed by a rapidly aging population, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei is now calling on women to have more children.
"The budget for the population control program has been fully eliminated and such a project no longer exists in the health ministry. The policy of population control does not exist as it did previously,” explained Minister of Health and Medical Education Marzieh Vahid Dastjerdi on August 2, 2012.
Iran stands out for lowering its fertility in a short time without coercion or abortion. The fertility rate dropped from 6.6 births per woman in 1977 to 2 births per woman in 2000 and to 1.9 births per woman in 2006. The decline was particularly striking in rural areas, where the average number of births per woman dropped from 8.1 to 2.1 in a single generation. (European countries took about 300 years to experience a similar decline.)
But Iran’s population is now aging rapidly. The median age increased from 18 in the mid-1970s to 28 in 2012, and it is expected to increase to 40 by 2030 at the current fertility rate, according to the U.N. Population Division. The Islamic Republic feels the population control policy is now outdated.
The government began reversing course two years earlier when President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad introduced a funding program to encourage families to have more children. Under the plan, each newborn receives a $950 deposit into a government bank account. The child then continues to receive $95 annually until it turns 18. Parents are expected to match the deposits. Children will be allowed to withdraw the funds at the age of 20 to use for education, marriage, health, and housing.
Three Phases of Population Policies
Tehran has long been pragmatic about population policies and programs, reflected in three phases. In 1967, Iran was one of the first countries to establish a family planning program using birth control as a human right and emphasized its social and economic benefits for families and society. Young doctors were taught about family planning’s implications for public health and its critical role in improving the health of women and children. By the mid-1970s, 37 percent of married women were practicing family planning, with 24 percent using modern methods. Yet the total fertility rate remained high at more than six births per woman.
After the 1979 revolution, the new theocracy dismantled the family planning program and instead advocated population growth. It called on women to breed an Islamic generation. It provided benefits, including allowances and food subsidies for larger families. By 1986, the census showed that Iran’s population was close to 50 million—and growing by more than 3 percent per year, one of the world’s highest rates.
After the 1980-88 war with Iraq, the government began to view rapid population growth as a major obstacle to the economic and social development. It reversed course, reviving family planning programs and promoting small family size. In 1993, parliament passed a bill that removed most economic incentives for large families. The law also gave special attention to reducing infant mortality, promoting women’s education and employment, and extending social security and retirement benefits to all parents so that they would not be motivated to have many children as a source of old-age security.
The speed of the fertility decline went beyond expectations. The first official target in the government’s first five-year development plan was to reduce the total fertility to 4.0 births per woman by 2011. By 2000, the rate was already down to half that goal. Iran’s primary health care system is recognized as a model by the World Health Organization (WHO).
New Policies May Not Work
Iran may not be able to reverse public practices, in part because small family size is now enshrined in the psyche of both men and women. The public is now used to having control over reproductive rights and may continue to do so, whether through government-sponsored health services or the private sector.
In 2012, 74 percent of married women aged 15 to 49 practice family planning. Some 60 percent use one of several forms of contraception, while one-third rely on female or male sterilization. These rates are more or less comparable to those in the United States, according to the U.S.-based Population Reference Bureau.
Iranian decisions about whether to have a child are more complicated. Since the 1979 revolution, female education has soared, in turn altering expectations about personal lives and professional opportunities. Elementary school enrollment is now universal, with the gender gap in secondary school almost closed. For many years, more girls have been enrolled in universities than boys (which recently prompted the government to set quotas in favor of male university students.)
As a result, the majority of Iranian women live a modern lifestyle. And increasing numbers are also active in politics too. Many women active on reproductive rights issues have been at the forefront of the democracy movement, organizing petitions and taking to the streets to demand even more rights.
Despite rigid clerical rule, Iranians still have access to secular ideas through satellite television and the Internet. Iranians have the second highest rate of Internet use in the Middle East and North Africa region, after the United Arab Emirates, despite government censorship.
In the end, the Ministry of Health and Medical Education may not ban family planning services altogether because they are an important part of maternal and child health care.
The regime also may not fully roll back school health or premarital counseling classes. These educational activities were originally developed for family planning purposes, but over time they were expanded to cover other reproductive issues, such as sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. Iran has the largest number of people living with HIV/AIDS in the region.
Financial incentives may not be enough to shift attitudes. The Ahmadinejad program is comparatively small, especially given mounting challenges to make ends meet with high unemployment and soaring inflation. The government already has programs to encourage marriage by helping poor couples with wedding expenses and starting a home. But the number of participants is too small to have a serious impact on the average age at marriage.
Whatever the government does, the number of births will increase for at least another decade as the baby boomers born during the high-fertility era in the 1980s come of age. They are now in their 20s and early 30s, prime ages to marry and have children. The impact of the government’s new pronatalist politics may take years to play out.
Farzaneh Roudi is the Program Director for the Middle East and North Africa region at the Population Reference Bureau.