Fatemeh Bahrami / AA / Abaca Press / Polaris

Iran draft bills would reduce women to ‘baby-making machines’

Move to boost the population would restrict access to birth control and abortion, says Amnesty International

A pair of proposed laws in Iran would restrict women’s reproductive choices, according to human rights advocates, who raised alarm over legislation that they say would reduce women to "baby-making machines."

Amnesty International, in a report published Wednesday, denounced a proposal that would ban voluntary sterilizations, restrict abortions and block access to information on contraception.

A second bill would encourage early marriage and make divorce more difficult. It would also make it legal for employers to discriminate against female job candidates, particularly if they are single and have no children, according to the report. Clerics would be enlisted to endorse an “Islamic-Iranian lifestyle” rooted in “traditional” family values that view childrearing as women’s primary purpose, it added.

The draft bills come after decades of decline in the country’s birthrate — from 7 births per woman in 1980, at the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War, to 1.85 in 2014, according to the United Nations. A population’s replacement fertility rate is about 2.3 births per woman. 

The government has been seeking to reverse this downward birth trend since 2012, when Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called for the country to double its population of 78 million within 50 years. In May 2014, he issued a decree urging more births to "strengthen national identity" and counter "undesirable aspects of Western lifestyles." 

Fertility in Iran

The number of births per woman in Iran dropped sharply after a new family planning program was implemented in 1989.

The U.N. hailed the decline in birthrate as one of most successful family planning campaigns in history. Women’s literacy programs and university courses on contraception played central roles in giving women control over their reproductive decisions and lowering the birthrate, according to a report by the agency's population division.

Now the new bills are putting women's reproductive choices in danger, according to Amnesty.

“The proposed laws will entrench discriminatory practices and set the rights of women and girls in Iran back by decades,” Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, the deputy director for the Middle East and North Africa at Amnesty International, said in a statement. “The authorities are promoting a dangerous culture in which women are stripped of key rights and viewed as baby-making machines rather than human beings with fundamental rights to make choices about their own bodies and lives.”

Some analysts say Iran's fertility target is too ambitious. Khamenei's goals is not as realistic as his predecessor Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomenei's contraception drive of the 1990s, according to Djavad Salehi-Isfahani, an economics professor at Virginia Tech who studied the drivers behind the program’s success.

Women's desire to study and participate in the workforce in part fueled the nation’s decrease in fertility rates, he said, regardless of the subsidies that were allocated to families who limited their offspring.

“It will be difficult to convince women that what they want is wrong, because [before] they were saying that what they wanted was right,” he said. 

Consequently, Salehi-Isfahani said, women might face price increases of black market contraceptives and resort to illegal abortions when no other options are available.

Parliament approved the first bill last August by an overwhelming majority. It is currently under review by the country’s highest legal body. Legislators will vote on the second measure in April, Amnesty said.

Iranian reformists say the move is catering to conservatives’ wishes of keeping the country’s highly educated female workforce in childrearing roles.

“There is a conservative belief that if women get more busy with domestic activities and childbearing, they will be less likely to be asking for equal rights," Salehi-Isfahani said. 

With Reuters

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