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Iran's New Law To Boost Birthrate Takes Aim At Condoms, Raises HIV Risks

An Iranian public healthcare official warns that a parliamentary bill to boost birth rates will cut access to condoms, and could fuel sexually-transmitted diseases like AIDS.

Iran's New Law To Boost Birthrate Takes Aim At Condoms, Raises HIV Risks

A family walking in the city of Qom

Hannah Steinkopf-Frank

TEHRAN — Facing the lowest birth rate in the Middle East, the Iranian government has passed legislation that will end the distribution of free contraceptives in the public health care system unless a pregnancy would threaten the woman's health.

The law, called Rejuvenate the Population (Tarh-e javani-e jam'iat), has already faced pushback from NGOs for its attempt to undermine woman's reproductive rights. But now an Iranian public health official has also voiced his opposition, warning that discouraging the use of condoms will increase the spread of AIDS/HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases.

Mas'ud Mardani, who heads the State Committee to Fight AIDS and the Anti-Coronavirus Committee, describes the legislation as "ill-considered," reports Persian-language media Kayhan-London.

National AIDS strategy shelved

Mardani said that the bill will reverse years of efforts to promote condom use among men, "making our youngsters highly vulnerable to HIV and... infections will rise."

The situation is particularly critical given that because of the pandemic, antiretroviral medicines are in short supply and the state seems to have abandoned its "management strategy" against HIV/AIDS. Mardani says the Committee had not had any recent meetings to discuss the national AIDS strategy.

Conservatives see family planning as cultural corruption from the West.

In the mid-1980s, Iran had one of the highest birth rates in the world, at 6.5 children for each woman of childbearing age, according Saleh Ghasemi, head of the Center for Strategic Research on Population. The website Iran International reports that the number has now plummeted to 1.6, given political, economic and social crises that have disrupted the Middle Eastern country, but also because of greater access to family planning. (In fact, Iran was seen as a success story in the region for its policies supporting reproductive healthcare.)

The biggest decline in births occurred between 2015-2020, with fewer than 550,000 births annually. The population growth rate has consequently shrunk to .6% and is expected to reach zero in the next 10-15 years.

Conservatives among Iran's clergy and politicians have long denounced family planning as cultural corruption from the West and supported policies to boost the population.

Parliament approved the Bill to Rejuvenate the Population on April 3, and it is now being reviewed by the country's top constitutional body, the Guardian Council, before expected to go into effect before the end of November.

The new legislation will further limit access to legal abortions

Morteza Nikoubazl/NurPhoto/ZUMA

Regression for women's rights 

Last month, Human Rights Watch (HRW) warned that the new legislation will put women's lives at risk through denying them access to essential reproductive healthcare and information as well as outlawing sterilization, Middle East Eye reports.

It also further limits access to legal abortions, which are only allowed during the first four months of pregnancy and if there is a threat to the women's life or the fetus. (Consequently, some 600,000 illegal abortions take place in the country each year, according to Kubra Khazali, the head of the Women's Social Council in Iran.)

The proposed legislation does provide some benefits, most notably increasing employment benefits for pregnant and breastfeeding woman, but doesn't address discriminatory hiring and workplace practices that women with children face.

HRW says that the legislation reinforces the concept of women's primary role as mothers in charge of child-rearing.

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