Family planning takes firm hold in Iran
By Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran 

Published: March 11 2009 16:27 | Last updated: March 11 2009 16:27

After his second child was born, Ali, an Iranian pick-up driver from a modest, 
religious background, chose to be sterilised.

"I am not in principle against having more kids but believe I should be able to 
raise them properly," he says, referring to his children's financial, 
educational and social needs.

Ali, 41, is not alone in today's Iran. Rather - and rarely for the Islamic 
world - he is representative of a dominant culture of having fewer children.
Although having a vasectomy is the least common form of contraception in Iran, 
Ali's thinking highlights how the idea of family planning has taken root among 
Iranians over the past two decades.

Alarm bells rang following a census in 1986 when the Islamic regime realised a 
policy of having more children after the 1979 revolution was likely to create a 
mass of unemployed, poorly educated people rather than the "20m-strong army" it 
had initially hoped for.

Ruling clerics decided to curb the population explosion that had hit a peak of 
3.2 per cent in 1986 from 2.7 per cent a decade earlier.

Family planning in a conservative society such as Iran's could not succeed 
without the consent and support of the Shia clergy. Shia Islam's doctrine of 
ijtihad allows senior religious scholars to introduce new interpretations of 
Islamic rulings. 

Before his death in 1989, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the founder of Iran's 
revolution, unambiguously supported birth control in various religious decrees. 

Now, thanks to the free-of-charge family planning scheme, population growth has 
halved to 1.6 per cent a year. 

"We do not say how many children a family should have, rather we put the 
emphasis on the health of family including reproductive health," says Kamran 
Baqeri-Lankarani, the health minister. 

The clergy has authorised different methods of contraception, including the 
pill, condoms, injections, intrauterine devices and vasectomies. Even abortion 
is allowed if the foetus has an incurable disease.

"Introduction of the family programme, together with a change of culture that 
children need education, good food and clothes, have contributed to the success 
and the sustainability of the programme," says Soudabeh Ahmadzadeh, the officer 
in charge of the United Nations Population Fund in Tehran.

"We recommend that women, for instance, space their pregnancies within the age 
limit of 18 to 35 years old, the result of which is fewer children," he says. 

Using a network of about 20,000 "health houses" covering 90 per cent of rural 
areas has been a determining factor in the success of the plan. Nurses in the 
centres encourage patients to use contraception and follow up with advice. 

Family planning is not without its critics. A minority of radical politicians 
and clergy are concerned it can change Iran's demography to the detriment of 
Persians, who constitute just over 50 per cent of the population, and the 
absolute majority of Shia. 

President Mahmoud Ahmadi-Nejad, a fundamentalist, was among the critics - but 
repented in the face of a backlash. Two years ago he said the country could do 
with more children and a population of up to 120m. But the comments created 
uproar in the media and the government had to retreat.

Analysts say no matter what Mr Ahmadi-Nejad's government may wish, the trend is 
irreversible. About 70 per cent of the population is now urbanised while the 
female literacy rate, usually a critical factor in reducing family size, has 
more than doubled, reaching 80.3 per cent thanks to a literacy campaign begun 
after the revolution. "Society does not accept more than two or three kids any 
more and finds it against social values," says Ali.

Additional reporting by Monavar Khalaj

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