Iran's Plan to Limit Access to Birth Control Will Backfire Spectacularly

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Iran is weighing the passage of two bills that would make population the most nation's most important priority — even more important than the rights of Iranian women and the prosperity of the country's young people.

Bill 446, the first of the two proposed pieces of legislation, "would curb women's use of modern contraceptives, outlaw voluntary sterilization [including vasectomies], ban the provision of information on contraceptive methods and dismantle state-funded family planning programs," according to a recent report by Amnesty International. 

The second proposition, Bill 315, would mandate that organizations prioritize married men and women with children when hiring for specific jobs. Single women or childless women would be shown the door, which Amnesty International warned could have "devastating consequences" for single women or women in abusive relationships.

Bill 446 successfully made it through Parliament last August and is now awaiting final approval by the Guardian Council, one of the country's most powerful governing bodies, while Bill 315 is scheduled for discussion in Parliament in April. Because both pieces of legislation have the support of Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's supreme leader, they will likely pass, according to the Guardian.

It's a stunning policy reversal. As the Guardian points out, Iran has had relatively progressive family planning programs in place for more than 20 years, including subsidized vasectomies, affordable contraceptives, free prophylactics and nationwide family planning and sexual health education policies.

All that changed recently. In 2006, then-President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad urged the country to nearly double its population, from 70 million to 120 million, to "triumph" over the West. And in 2012, according to USA Today, Khamenei claimed that while the country's family planning efforts worked two decades ago, "its continuation in later years was wrong." 

Like Ahmadinejad, Khamenei also criticized Western influence, saying that having more children would fight against the "undesirable aspects of Western lifestyles," as reported by the Washington Post.

Source: Damian Dovarganes/AP

Women in particular will lose out. "The bills reinforce discriminatory stereotypes of women, and mark an unprecedented move by the state to interfere in people's personal lives," said Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, Amnesty International's deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa, in a statement from the organization. "In their zealous quest to project an image of military might and geopolitical strength by attempting to increase birth rates, Iran's authorities are trampling all over the fundamental rights of women."

Amnesty International's report indicated that limiting access to birth control would lead to an uptick in the number of unwanted pregnancies — and thus illegal and unsafe abortions — as well as sexually transmitted diseases like HIV.

"The authorities are promoting a dangerous culture in which women are stripped of key rights and viewed as baby-making machines rather than human beings with fundamental rights to make choices about their own bodies and lives," Sahraoui said, according to Amnesty International.  

But while women would bear the brunt of the bills, they wouldn't be the only ones to suffer. Young people, regardless of gender, would pay a price. Iranians under the age of 30 make up more than 60% of the population, according to the World Bank, meaning that resources — and jobs — are stretched thin. 

Source: CIA

Case in point: Although the country's official unemployment rate hovered around 10.4% as of March 2014, it's much worse among young people. The World Bank reported that young people had an unemployment rate as high as 20%, but some experts believe that number is closer to 40%. Meanwhile, the nation's "brain drain," where Iran's young and educated leave the country, is an ever-present problem.

Given the youth population's continuing struggles, it seems nonsensical to saddle them with another, extremely difficult load: children. But restricting access to birth control will inevitably push them in this direction, and may have serious consequences for the country's economy. 

As the Associated Press noted in 2012, a dissatisfied youth population could spell bad news for political leaders: 

"More than half of Iran's population is under 35 years old. Those youth form the base of opposition groups, including the so-called Green Movement that led unprecedented street protests after President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's disputed re-election in 2009. Some experts have said that trying to boost the numbers for upcoming generations also could feed future political dissent."

These policies will bring unintended consequences: It's not as if Iran hasn't faced this problem before. Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini called for population growth to fuel a "20 million-member army," the Associated Press reported. But Khamenei reversed his predecessor's position, warning that an unchecked increase would strain the country's economy. 

Given this, it seems strange that Iran is now returning to Khomeini's initial (and unreasonable) position. The country appears to have come full circle, even though doing so will erase the hard-won progress it spent years creating.