On Tuesday, March 16, Iranian media reported that parliament had approved the seven-year implementation of something called the "Population Youth Plan". The draft plan states that it aims to “increase the population”, in part by forcefully prohibiting any action that might impede childbearing in the country.
The move is the latest attempt by the 11th parliament to stoke the furnace of childbearing in Iran: an oven without firewood, a baker or dough. Almost 90 percent of the MPs present in yesterday's session voted in favor of the pilot program, without a shred of an indication of how it is to be funded or who will be responsible for its oversight.
The text approved by the parliament bears no introduction or conclusion. It does not define its goals, nor the indicators by which the plan will be deemed successful or not. During the open session of parliament, however, those introducing it were clear on one thing: it has come about at the behest of the Supreme Leader. As the MP for Isfahan said, “the Supreme Leader emphasizes that the seventh five-year plan is focused on the youth population”.
This “young revolutionary” parliament is largely concerned with being seen to have done something to please the leader of the Islamic Republic. Whether or not it is successful is irrelevant; the outcome will not be appraised until seven years from now, regardless of the resources wasted and billions of tomans spent along the way.
What Does the Plan Stipulate?
The draft plan and its 74 provisions are largely devoted to encouraging families to have children regardless of circumstance, and punishing those who do not want them.
Among the most serious provisions is Article 51, which states that the free distribution of contraceptives, and the promotion of contraceptives in healthcare networks under the auspices of the Ministry of Health, will be prohibited. Article 52 states that the medical sterilization of men and women will also be banned.
Furthermore, Article 53 states that a failure to refer a pregnant woman for screening for fetal abnormalities, either by a physician or by other healthcare workers, will not be considered an offence and will not be prosecuted. Health workers are also barred from encouraging expectant mothers to seek screenings or diagnoses for fetal abnormalities.
Article 54 states that patients’ fertility, pregnancy and abortion histories should be recorded by all health centers, laboratories, infertility treatment centers and radiology centers in the country, both governmental and private.
Article 56 deals with the formation of an “abortion council” to control and prevent abortions, on which three “mujtahid jurists” will hold permanent positions with vetoing rights. At least two of these jurists will be required for any decision to be passed by the council.
Further down, Article 59 obliges the Ministry of Intelligence and other security agencies to treat abortion as a security issue. In a similar vein, Article 65 raises the spectre of the impact of "genetically modified food" and "bioterrorism" on infertility and says Iran’s Passive Defense Organization should be appointed to deal with this issue.
There are also implications for other sectors. Article 35 demands the “elimination” of any educational content “opposed to childbearing” from school curricula, while higher education institutions are obliged to create “counselling centers based on the Iranian-Islamic lifestyle”, which will be overseen by the Islamic Propaganda Organization. The Ministries of Science, Health and Sports are all instructed to dedicate five percent of their research credits every year to studies on childbearing and population growth.
Is This Workable?
What do the members of the 11th parliament and the concerned group expect from the "Population Youth Plan"? What would they like the fertility rate to be, and how do they expect to see meaningful demographic change in a country drowning in economic, social, political and environmental crisis?
Our previous analysis of official figures from the Statistical Center of Iran found that an increase in the number of children per household does not materially change the household budget. Income and expenditure, in present-day Iran, are more or less fixed: the addition of a new family member means less food on the table for all. Loans so far offered by the government as an incentive are inadequate, and only cover a maximum of 6,000 families: if each of these has a child, the birth rate will only have increased by a derisory 0.26 percent by 2022.
At the same time, the turbulent administrative system in Iran does not have the financial or structural capacity to bring about widespread change. Certainly, the adoption of measures that stabilize and increase the relative rights of women on maternity leave would be a welcome development. But by itself, it is similarly unlikely to have any effect on population growth.
In sum, this plan would be highly unlikely to achieve the desired result, even if a desired result had been specified. But it will be an additional source of problems, even life-changing and life-threatening ones, to millions of people. It also continues the trend of approaching people’s personal and individual choices, from what they eat to how many children they have, as security concerns.
Some of the provisions, such as Article 65 on genetically-modified food, have their roots in popular conspiracy theories. The involvement of military and security institutions such as the Passive Defense Organization or the Ministry of Intelligence in childbirth also raises the prospect of yet another serious confrontation between the rule of the Islamic Republic and ordinary citizens, who have a right to choose.