Last week the Iranian Health Ministry announced that “aiding and abetting” abortions is now a crime and medical professionals acting as "accessories" to abortion will face heavy fines and disbarment for life.
"If a doctor is involved in an intentional abortion his permit will be revoked, even if it is his first time," announced Saber Jabberi, the ministry’s head of Youth Population Department. Asserting that abortion is forbidden in Islamic law, he said that the government’s draconian "Law on Family Protection and Youth" stipulated that the fetus “has a right to life”, meaning that “once a fetus is formed, it is not at the disposal of the father or the mother”.
In recent years, in line with personal demands issued by Ali Khamenei, policymaking in the Islamic Republic has leant toward aggressively increasing the population of Iran at whatever cost. This has involved questionable incentives, like offering $6,000 loans to couples who have a third child, and the criminalization of family planning services, from offering free contraception to prenatal screening to almost all abortions.
Elective abortions were never legal in the Islamic Republic. Doctors have only ever been allowed to provide abortion services to women whose lives were in danger, or if screening showed the foetus had serious physical or genetic defects.
A gynaecologist in Iran told IranWire that the latest clampdown would only put women at greater risk. At least 600,000 illegal abortions take place in Iran every year and that number is only expected to rise. “Even before these new restrictions,” they said, “most women, especially those who had fallen pregnant outside wedlock, had to seek a termination through underground medical networks, either from non-specialists in unsanitary locations, or by taking drugs that were often counterfeit.”
“A young woman patient of mine had purchased abortion pills and had ended her pregnancy in the sixth week. She came to me for examination and to manage the after-effects. We, as doctors, do not pry into what has happened or how the abortion was performed. But with the new restrictions, it’s not clear how costly it’s going to be for us, or for the women who come to us.”
Population Growth: A Misguided Obsession
In 2020, Ayatollah Khamenei announced that nothing should be done to control population growth until the population reached 150 million. The figure came out of thin air, but it was not the first time Khamenei had expressed that broad intention, despite the current socio-economic realities in Iran making it largely nonsensical.
Regardless, government policies have accordingly reflected this demand. The idea of childbearing-as-national-mission is promoted in textbooks, in the media and on billboards in major cities. Banks have advertised their readiness to give “fertility loans” for housing to married couples to encourage them to have children, or more children, in the face of steeply rising house prices.
Earlier this week, the IRIB’s official newspaper Jam-e Jam published a report holding up the seven-member family of Portuguese football star Cristiano Ronaldo as a model for Iranians to follow. “Many actors and celebrities,” it proclaimed, “such as Angelina Jolie and even some political officials in European and American countries, have many children, and try to remind their people that having many children is a valuable attainment.”
Of course, in the normal course of events, Iranian state media outlets are unrelenting in their attacks on the lifestyles of families in the west.
Another action taken by the government to more forcibly increase the population is to deprive men and women of cheap or affordable contraceptives. This has put people in underprivileged parts of Iran under greater strain, and women there at greater risk.
“You must have heard the news about abandoned babies in the streets, in garbage cans and on street corners,” the gynecologist who spoke to IranWire said. “Besides the birth of thousands of children who meet this fate, the policy contributes to the spread of sexually transmitted diseases. This threatens not only the health of individuals but the health of society as a whole.”
Ayatollah Khamenei has meanwhile continued to relentlessly promote childbearing in Iran. As recently as May 18, he described the prospect of an aging population as “horrific”, and reaffirmed his backing for a set of policies that violate the human rights of half the existing one.
A Near-Total End to Screening
In 2005, the Supreme Leader and a cluster of other Iranian clerics issued fatwas that gave rise to an eventual, single-article law, entitled “Therapeutic Abortion”, which passed through parliament and was rubber-stamped by the Guardian Council.
The law allowed abortion before the fourth month of pregnancy, but only if three doctors and the official medical examiner confirmed that either the baby had a life-changing condition, or the mother’s life was in danger.
On June 18, however, Health Minister Bahram Einollahi issued a new directive. Prenatal screening for defects in Iran can now only be carried out on the would-be parent’s personal request; medical professionals cannot advise them to pursue screening.
Much more seriously, the directive states that pregnant women aged under 35, and women who have not previously given birth to genetically defective babies or babies suffering from Down’s syndrome – despite the fact that Down’s syndrome is not usually inherited but random – “do not need to be tested”. Insurers have been instructed not to cover prenatal screening for women who do not fall into these narrow categories.
Medical experts and geneticists have lined up to criticize this measure, saying it will inevitably lead to a rise in the number of children born with debilitating illnesses. The gynaecologist who spoke to IranWire said that even before this, “Each sonogram and test would cost somewhere between 250,000 and 400,000 tomans [US$8 to $13]. Now coverage is no longer mandatory, many families might go without these tests only to find out after the birth that the baby has problems. It seems that none of these issues are of importance to MPs.”
Not Only Women Forced to Give Birth Suffer
A woman named Farzaneh, who has had two abortions in the past, told IranWire that in Iran, due to the socio-political climate, even those who are able to get a termination are forced to bear an undue burden for the rest of their lives because of it.
“I was one of those lucky women who didn’t have to go through a horrible experience [to end the pregnancies],” she told IranWire. “My husband and I had already agreed we didn’t want to have a child, so I didn’t have to work hard to convince him. We also had a gynecologist friend who helped me end my pregnancies.
“Despite all this, I can’t tell you how much I suffered psychologically, from the judgement of people around me. At that time, I’d just lost my mother, my family had emigrated, I was depressed, and I felt utterly alone.”
Dr. Saba Alaleh, a clinical psychologist, agrees these laws harm all women. Those who choose to end a pregnancy, he said, “are generally rebuked along the lines of ‘You have intentionally killed a baby. If you didn’t want a baby you should have been careful not to get pregnant. You were not worthy of being a mother. You are an immature woman.’ It’s as though all of society wants to condemn her, because they had no say in her decision.”