Iran cannot force its citizens to have more children, but it could take away their ability to get their tubes tied.
Acting on Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei's calls for Iran to reverse course and boost its population growth, parliament has passed a bill that would make vasectomies, tubectomies, and other surgical methods of sterilization punishable by two to five years in prison.
The bill cleared parliament on June 24 by a vote of 207 in favor and 106 against, although many questions remain -- including whether the doctors carrying out the procedures, or the patients receiving them, would be subject to punishment.
The bill would reportedly also introduce jail sentences for those who promote sterilization as a means of birth control. Abortions are already banned in Iran, except for special cases.
The bill has been sent back to the parliament's Health Committee for further review, after which the revised bill would have to be approved by parliament and be ratified by the Guardians Council before becoming law.
Supreme Leader Khamenei has spoken out often in recent months about Iran's need to address its aging population in order to sustain development. In 2012, Khamenei called for Iran's population to be doubled to 150 million and described the Islamic republic's long-standing population-control policies as "wrong."
In a 14-point program issued in May, the supreme leader called on the three branches of government to take steps to help increase the birthrate, including the elimination of barriers to marriage and the provision of support to young couples. The plan also called for the promotion of an "Islamic and Iranian lifestyle" and countering "the negative aspects" of Western lifestyles.
'The More The Merrier'?
The moves are an about-face for Iran, which for two decades has followed a policy designed to slow population growth.
The hard-line daily "Keyhan," in a commentary published in late June, argued that Khamenei had recognized that the policy had been too successful, too soon, and that Iran soon risked having zero population growth. In 2013, Iran's population growth was reported to be 1.2 percent.
The message being promoted these days on state media and procreation campaigns is "The more, the merrier." Budgets for state family-planning programs have been cut, and subsidies for condoms have been removed.
But the latest bill has its critics. Some lawmakers have objected to criminalizing sterilization, saying it could do more harm than good, given the relatively low number of Iranians who undergo sterilization.
"From the methods used to prevent pregnancy, only 3 percent include surgeries," Majlis deputy Mehdi Davatgari argued during the June 24 parliament session. "We are passing a law for 3 percent, it would result in these types of surgeries being performed in private clinics and [underground] facilities."
He said that in 2012, out of 3.5 million Iranians who used birth-control methods, 70,000 underwent tubal ligation and another 30,000 had vasectomies. Another 1.3 million used contraceptive pills, while the remainder used other "nonpermanent" measures.
On a dissenting note, Davatgari said it wasn't clear from the bill whether those performing sterilization surgeries would be punished, or the women and men who sought them, and that if passed the law could needlessly increase crime and incarceration. "We can't force people to have children with a lash and a jail [sentence]," he concluded.
Arguing in favor during the June 24 session of parliament was conservative lawmaker Ali Motahari, who blamed Western influence for Iran's slowing population growth. "The orientation toward Western culture has created this problem for us," Motahari was quoted as saying by Iranian media. "Barriers blocking population growth should be removed."
Motahari called sterilization "irrational" unless it was performed for health issues. "We witnessed that a woman who would give birth to her fourth child would be sterilized at the hospital without her knowledge," he said.
Lawmaker Hamidreza Tabatabayi countered that by saying that in past years only individuals with HIV/AIDS or hepatitis or older people who were likely to give birth to unhealthy children had been sterilized.
Less Executions Instead?
There were also some dissenting voices in the media.
Law professor Mohammad Hashemi told the semi-official ISNA news agency that the bill violated basic rights and Iran's constitution. "Getting married, not getting married, having children or not having children are among people's legitimate freedoms," he said, adding that no one should interfere in citizens' private matters.
Tabnak.ir said it was "bitterly ironic" that those performing vasectomies or tubectomies could be treated as criminals. The website said those promoting the bill were ignoring the depth of Iran's economic and social problems.
"How can the declining marriage rate, the increasing divorce rate, the many economic problems...be ignored and jail sentences be introduced for those who don't want to have kids and think that under the shadow of such a step everything will be rosy?"
The issue also did not escape comment on social media.
"If instead of vasectomy, executions would be banned, Iran's population would have increased to 150 million by now," wrote one Iranian reacting to the bill.
Another said that Iranian leaders' logic in calling for population growth was difficult to understand. "We're dealing with poverty, a sick economy, and environmental problems, and they issue fatwas for a population of 150 million?"