IRAN – Supreme Leader Khomeini during a meeting with a group of schoolgirls (February 2023)

In 2020, there began to be news reports that Iran was changing its population policy. The population was ageing, birth rates were low and contraception, abortion and vasectomy were all available. In June 2020, the BBC reported that Iran had limited the provision of family planning services at state-run hospitals. The report said vasectomies would no longer be carried out at state-run medical centres, and contraceptives would only be offered to women whose health might be at risk. Annual population growth had dropped below 1%, and if no action was taken, Iran could become one of the world’s oldest countries in the next 30 years, the health ministry said. However, such services would still be provided at private hospitals. Marriage and children within marriage were both in decline, Iran’s state-run news agency Irna reported, largely because of economic hardship. The Health Ministry reported that the marriage rate had dropped by 40% in the previous decade. Ayatollah Khamenei called for people to have more children, saying he wanted the current population population of 80 million to grow to 150 million.

In July 2022, the Lancet reported the following: “On 18 June 2022, the Iranian Government issued a directive instructing medical professionals to stop recommending antenatal screening tests. Expectant parents will now have to request such testing, which can only be ordered by gynaecologists. The move is the latest in a series of measures aimed at limiting abortions and access to birth control in Iran. The Youthful Population and Protection of the Family Law, which was ratified towards the end of 2021, calls for the establishment of abortion panels to determine whether a pregnancy can be legally terminated. The legislation also stipulates that anyone performing multiple abortions could be liable for capital punishment. Iran only permits abortion within the first 4 months of pregnancy, if giving birth would endanger the life of the mother, or if the fetus shows signs of severe or life-threatening disability.” Incentives supporting earlier marriage and higher fertility were also included in the legislation. An article published in December 2023 argued that “As well as violating reproductive rights, the new policy is unlikely to achieve its aim of initiating a sustained rise in fertility in Iran.”

Most recently, in March 2024, in Iran International, an article argued that “year after year, individuals are instead opting to have fewer children, standing in opposition to the government’s ambitious population policy, and especially by Iranian women opting for abortions. A senior health expert suggested that there were approximately 530,000 legal and illegal abortions annually. Other authorities offer estimates ranging from 250,000 to 650,000 cases per year.

According to Article 56 of the Family Protection and Youth Population Law, an abortion without a licence is punishable by fine, imprisonment, and revocation of the medical license, and the coroner’s office is responsible for filing the case for the applicants. The doctor of this office is in charge of reviewing the documents and completing the details of the case. In addition to the punishments stipulated in the Islamic Penal Code, the work licence of a doctor, midwife, or pharmacist involved in abortion and their stewards will be revoked and they must pay a fine. But despite these punishments, underground and illegal abortions continue, with the government struggling to enforce its law. Easy access to abortion pills has also contributed. Although around half a million individuals, comprising roughly one million births and half a million deaths, are added to the population annually, but if current trends persist, the growth rate is projected to reach zero within the next seven years, thereafter turning negative.

Even the prohibition of antenatal screening has not aided in decreasing abortion rates. The pervasive sense of economic hardship and despair regarding the future weighs heavily on the minds of mothers across all 31 provinces – with the burden prompting them to undergo abortions despite the associated risks and financial strain, all of which are borne out of their own pockets.

SOURCES: BBC News, 15 June 2020 ; The Lancet Child & Adolescent Health, by Talha Burki. 26 July 2022 ; Sexual & Reproductive Health Matters, by Khadijeh Asadisarvestani, Tomas Sobotka. 2023;December 31(1):2257075 ; Iran International, by Majid Mohammadi, 13 March 2024 + PHOTO ABOVE (no credit).