The past few days in Iran have been peppered by reports on contraceptive drugs apparently being blocked from sale due to an alarming combination of shortages, a new directive blocking over-the-counter sales, and the shadowy presence of the so-called “morality patrols” trying hard to put buyers off.
A spokesperson for Iran’s Food and Drug Administration has tried to dampen down the situation, stating: “The sale of contraceptive drugs has not been banned, but pharmacies must not sell them freely or without a doctor’s prescription.”
IranWire’s citizen journalists visited a number of drugstores in different Iranian provinces. Based on what they could gather, “freely” meant to single women without a prescription, and not either accompanied by a man or able to pay an effective bribe. There were also more significant shortages in more deprived zones.
One reporter in Shiraz went to eight different pharmacies in the city’s central and western zones this week. “One pharmacy in the center, and one in the west, still had pills for sale,” they said. “But the rest said they’d run out.”
In Ahvaz, the capital of Khuzestan, a citizen journalist told IranWire that a state-owned, 24-hour pharmacy in a busy commercial area was refusing to sell any oral contraceptive pills without prescription. Two other big drugstores said they had nothing left.
“We cannot sell birth control to women because it is banned and it would get us into trouble,” a pharmacist in Nik Shahr, Sistan and Baluchistan, told one of their regular customers. In the next breath, they said: “The ban is nationwide but here we’d sell to men that we know.”
That employee confirmed there was also a “serious” nationwide shortage and it would be “very difficult” for her to find over-the-counter contraceptives anywhere in the province.
Another pharmacy in the nearby city of Fanuj also told a female citizen journalist that it had no contraceptives for sale. She was told to go to Iranshahr, further north, and enquire there.
There, a pharmacist claimed that to buy any form of contraceptive at all, a woman “must have a prescription or be accompanied by her husband”. They went on: “The cost has tripled and a lot of people can’t afford them. There have also been restrictions imposed on the sale across the country.”
Elsewhere in Sistan and Baluchistan, in the port city of Chah Bahar, a pharmacist initially reused to sell oral contraceptives to a woman. “He said he had HD, LD and Yasmin pills,” she told IranWire. “After I persisted for some time, he sold me LD pills at double the price, but told me I couldn’t buy them anymore without a prescription – and there was a shortage all over the province.”
Another pharmacy in Chah Bahar sold a woman pills only after she could show a prescription. “Demand is high and there’s a shortage,” she was told.
Other drugstores in that city confirmed that contraceptives had become too expensive for most people to afford, and consequently for them to stock. New directives – such as their having to hide condoms under the counter – had also hampered sales.
A Case of Violence against Women
Fatemeh Haghighatjoo, a women’s rights advocate and former reformist MP, told IranWire of the new, restrictive environment: “Unfortunately in situations like this, the poor suffer the most. Well-to-do women who can afford it can find contraception in other ways. Underprivileged women cannot. One of the main slogans of the Islamic Revolution was social justice and an end to class inequality, but that has not come about.”
In the more than four decades since the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the state has always assumed a deciding role over women’s reproductive choices. Initially the demand was “Fewer children, more life”; after the 1980-88 war with Iraq, however, the landscape changed. Tehran, it was decided, needed more soldiers.
Following a boom in childbearing in the early 1990s, some pragmatic attempt was made to slow Iran’s population growth in the 1990s under Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. But from the early 2010s onward, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei gave full voice to his obsession with population growth.
“The families, the young people, must reproduce more,” Khamenei claimed in 2017. “If we can preserve the younger generation of today for tomorrow, all of the country’s problems will be solved through the readiness, joy, eagerness and the talent of the new generation of Iranians.” He has since claimed that in its current state, Iran could support a population of 150 million – compared to today’s 83 milllion, where close to a third live in absolute poverty.
Hardline politicians have since pushed through a raft of draconian measures aimed at forcing increased childbearing in Iran. Most recently in 2021 these crystallized in the “Law on Family Protection and Youth”, an unprecedented set of restrictions on family planning aimed at forcing more Iranian women to give birth.
Haghighatjoo described the fresh restrictions on contraceptive sales, as well as the state’s criminalization of elective abortions, as a form of violence against women. “Sometimes a state might have a policy about reducing the population, and at other times increasing it,” she said. “But what’s important is how these policies are executed.
“Actually, Iran’s population control policies were carried out very well, and were even praised by the United Nations. China had done the same, but used violence to enforce it, while Iran adopted a policy of encouragement. If the government sets the economy right then encouraging population growth might work, but instead, the Iranian government use methods that make the situation worse.”
Obstacles to contraception have pushed many Iranian women in the direction of underground terminations. Even official statistics concede this point; on June 27, the secretary of Tehran’s Strategic Population Council said at least 370,000 “mostly” illegal abortions were taking place annually. the annual abortion rate in Iran is around 370,000, “most of them criminal and illegal”.
This has compelled no new learning, however. On August 6, Ali Salehi, the public prosecutor of Tehran, advised that from now on district courts would be tasked with prosecuting the “crime” of abortion and of aiding in it, including by providing unauthorized contraceptives.
“For them [the Iranian authorities],” Haghighatjoo said, “human life has no value or dignity. It’s especially true of women, who are considered the ‘second sex’ and a target of violence. The fact that they arbitrate over women’s bodies is a violation of women’s rights and a clear act of violence against them.”