Iran’s child-bearing directive is a threat to public health

The banning of scientific messages about risks in pregnancy is yet another damaging imposition on academia, says Roohola Ramezani

五月 26, 2023
An ultrasound image of a foetus
Source: iStock

The Iranian Ministry of Science’s recent directive on encouraging female students to have more children has been heavily criticised, but it is not the first time the authorities have tried to advance their population policies through academia.

The directive bans all educational content deemed likely to discourage population renewal. Instead, universities and colleges are obliged to run majors that encourage childbearing, marriage and family life. New rewards are also being offered to professors who supervise students who are pregnant or mothers of young children, such as allowing them to have larger research groups.

Some joke on social media that the rewards should go to the students and their husbands, not to their professors. More broadly, the move is widely condemned as yet more inappropriate political interference in academic affairs in yet another futile attempt to push the Iranian population into parenthood.

Depopulation has been a principal concern of government for over a decade, and a variety of policies to boost childbearing have been tried, often weird enough to provoke public reaction and all doomed to failure. For instance, the government attempted several years ago to reserve 20 per cent of postgraduate admissions for married students. However, this plan for encouraging matrimony was ridiculed and condemned for being unfair, and it was eventually abandoned.

Experts constantly warn that childbearing cannot be compelled and that children are not produced to order. Many opponents of the latest directive point out that no academic content can be more discouraging to childbearing than such real-world impediments as high living costs, unemployment and despair about the future. And although there is no question that pregnant women and parents of young children should receive proper support in academia, as in any other profession, most people agree that academic promotion should not be affected by non-academic factors.

A wider concern about the latest directive relates to its obvious detrimental consequences for public health. The directive doesn’t stipulate the extent of the curricular changes that will be needed; as usual, implementation is likely to be done hastily and inconsiderately. But it is likely that a radical approach will be adopted. This could see the banning of teaching and research into healthy pregnancy, women’s physical and mental readiness for childbearing and sexual health more generally. Fields such as medicine and psychology could be affected very badly.

Perhaps the most concerning issue about the new population policies, of which the Ministry of Science directive is just one strand, is how science communication with the public will be affected. It is quite certain that any scientific message that might raise the slightest concern about pregnancy will be banned. For example, it has already been confirmed that premarital counselling will no longer be permitted.

Moreover, public education about healthy sex and pregnancy will be eliminated from official media – which already do a poor job of educating the public on these matters. The media will now be banned, for example, from informing Iranians about birth control. And given that birth control can also protect against sexually transmitted diseases (STDs), those diseases are likely to become more common. The damaging consequences of ignorance are illustrated by the fact that the main pattern of HIV transmission in Iran has changed over recent years from drug addicts sharing needles to unprotected sex.

There was already a strong case for scientists faced with authoritarian clampdowns on teaching and research to find new ways to get their messages across to the public. But this latest government intervention makes that even more urgent.

The muzzling of Iranian scientists can be partly compensated for by Iranian experts and academics who are based abroad. This requires proper organisation and communication with the Iranian public through unrestricted media (which technically don’t exist but are commonly accessed by unofficial means). However, the main responsibility lies with academics inside Iran to stand up against yet more political interference by criticising the directive and warning about its consequences. And independent – and independent-minded – researchers must speak out about the downsides of the new population policies.

Concerns about depopulation are entirely legitimate. Iranian childbirth rates have fallen to 1.9 children per woman in 2019: below the replacement rate. But those concerns should be addressed through academic debates. Instead, academia is to have unfair, ineffective and damaging solutions imposed on it again.

Roohola Ramezani has a PhD in philosophy from Shahid Beheshti University, Tehran. He has been a research fellow at the IFK International Research Centre for Cultural Studies in Vienna. His research interests include various topics in science studies, social epistemology and Iranian studies.



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